Why sonic branding is more than just the McDonald’s jingle

As our attention spans get shorter, brands want to engage customers in any way possible – ears are a good place to start.


“Asking a sonic branding agency if you just do sonic logos is like asking a visual agency if they only do business cards.”

So says Michele Arnese, CEO and founder at sonic branding company Amp, which has headquarters in Germany. It now also has branches in Switzerland, Italy, China and the US. That expansion speaks to the rising importance of sound design to brands — and what that covers is equally expansive.

Gone are the days of a two second sound logo with an animation at the end of an advert. You might be able to recall the Intel noise and the McDonald’s ‘I’m Lovin’it’ but they weren’t made for a holistic experience. Amp has a term for this new type of sound work: sonic DNA.

Uli Reese, the company’s CMO, says that it’s the biggest mistake he sees for brands. “I look at TV commercials and see sound design driven logos which our brain cannot understand. The anatomy of our brains is not wired to understand sound and noise. It’s wired to recall music — we’re born Mozarts.”

Reese says that music-driven branding has a greater recall, in the same way that you can learn a pop song in puberty and still sing it when you hear two seconds of it when you’re 80. By creating a sonic DNA, brands can extract sounds for different touch points and create a more holistic experience.

There is some lapse between theory and practicality though. Reese says: “There needs to be serious disruption in this process. I see it over and over. I want to scream: Don’t look for a faster horse, we have cars already.”

From branding to pop music

One project where they worked with bank BBVA shows the flexibility of modern sound branding. For all the bank’s touchpoints, which had to cover all 35 countries where the bank exists, Amp created a set of music tracks, which work across sound identity elements for UI (like the bank’s mobile app), advertising campaigns and YouTube channels.

Another important part of the sonic DNA is that it’s shareable: BBVA shared the sound with band Maico, who “were given the creative freedom to reinterpret and released the BBMA sound DNA under their own artist project”.

The result of that was, ‘How We Dream’, a light, up-beat track that has almost 2m plays on Spotify. This seems to be a win-win; it lends BBVA artistic credential and up-and-coming band Maico a hit. “We create pop culture,” he says.

“Purely visual stimuli just won’t do it”

Sonic branding is more complex than it once was – and understanding why it is needed helps to understand why. Luc van Stiphout, head of music and brands at MassiveMusic, a sonic branding company based in Amsterdam, says one of the most important reasons is our attention spans.

Sound is more important than ever for a few reasons. First is our shorter attention spans; “the competition for people’s attention is fierce,” van Stiphout says. “You need to pull on every string that you’ve got.

“You’re on your phone, your laptop is besides you and your fridge is telling you to stock up on milk — how do I get your attention? How do you cut through? Purely visual stimuli just won’t do it.”

Sound is a good one. Visual assets can be turned off closing your eyes; sound is 360 degrees. “It’s more intrusive,” the sound designer, who has experience DJ-ing and a background in product design, says. van Stiphout also points to research that claims audio input is “processed more quickly in the brain than visual input.”

“In the past, we were more reliant on our hearing than our sight — it’s not only quicker to affect us emotionally but it’s also processed more quickly too.”

“If you get it wrong, you can quickly alienate people”

Ithra, whose sound branding MassiveMusic created

The theory works, but how does sound go beyond beeps and alerts? Take Philips, whose sound branding MassiveMusic worked on when the technology company wanted to position itself as a “health tech brand”. “It wanted to improve the lives of others,” van Stiphout says, “so it’s a marriage of tech and human.”

MassiveMusic created a unique musical instrument which drew on the sounds of the human body, as well as sounds made by Philips’ most iconic product: its lightbulb.

A varied sound bank was created: heartbeats, finger snaps, a cello bow playing the filament of a lightbulb. Creating this sonic infrastructure means that brands can use it for campaigns, videos, as well as digital touch points on their devices as part of a user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).

There’s financial incentive for brands to create this type of sonic infrastructure; having a range of sounds means they don’t have to create new branding every time they release a new video on YouTube or want to release a new product.

Sonic branding has a wide scope. Among MassiveMusic’s clients are Premier League and Ithra, a cultural centre in the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia.

Like the branding for Philips, sound was important to the Premier League in creating a more “human” element to the “corporate” image of the football association. Ithra has a more classical style. According to van Stiphout, it was about “supporting a sense of wonder throughout”, as well as creating content they could use for online features and special events.

What next?

MassiveMusic is normally brought into a branding project when it is about 80% complete, van Stipout says. That way, there is enough time to “marry” the sound and the visuals. For example, DixonBaxi had built the foundations for the Premier League which MassiveMusic then worked from.

And while both agencies aim for a similar ending point — a complete infrastructure — Amp prefers to work from the ground up. The different approach is indicative of sound’s uncertain place in branding. Brands might not put it in prime position, and visual design has a much richer history.

The other unknown in sound branding is human-voiced assistants. The challenge here is complicated: it is impossible to know which of the tech giant’s assistants — Apple, Amazon, Google Home — will become the dominant force. Or should brands create their own voice assistants? (MassiveMusic recently worked on Samsung’s virtual assistant, Bixby.)

The future is unclear, and while both companies have different predictions, they agree that it will be key for brands’ interfaces in the future, and that it won’t be like anything we have now. Arnese says that the “interesting question” is what kind of hybrid feature will emerge: “How can I design a voice application using the interplay between sound and voice?”

Whatever the outcome, the landscape between branding, sound and voice is set to become even more intertwined.

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