Sonic Branding Is The Design Trend We Need Right Now

Ravi Krishnaswami
Nov 12 · 13 min read

Have you ever heard of the “other room test”? It’s a persistent advertising cliche that goes something like this: “I want people to know it’s our brand even when they hear it from the other room.” The implied ask is that the music is so amazing and memorable that it sticks to the brand and can be recognized later on without any visual information. This is usually assumed to be as a result of the sheer brilliance of the composer, and perhaps, singers exclaiming the name of the brand and its tag line.

That was, of course, during the golden age of TV advertising, when it was presumed that most people were living in a binary existence of either looking at or not looking at their living room set. The popularity of “jingles” during the early days of television can actually be attributed to the fact that television advertising grew organically out of radio advertising. Most of the creatives that pioneered television advertising began their career in a medium where you had no choice but to tell your brand’s story with audio. Believe it or not, the NBC chimes, one of the most recognizable sonic logos, started out as a way to cover over the sound of NBC radio engineers switching cables between shows, not as a branding exercise.

NBC Chimes

Some staggering data about audio today…

According to a study cited recently by Vox media, “smart speaker” sales grew by 78% during the last holiday buying season, pushing the number in circulation to 119 million. Santa brought one to nearly one in ten people! In a recent publishing industry survey, it was reported that audio content is by far the highest growing medium, with a whopping 146% growth over the last five years.

It’s also very likely that you or someone you know has recorded a podcast in the last year. Some smart folks studying this industry are predicting podcast advertising revenue to top $600 million dollars, a number ten times what was spent just four years earlier. And finally, returning to the binary existence of the early days of TV, Nielson is reporting that almost half of television viewers now admit to looking at a second screen (their smartphone) while watching their favorite shows. Admit it, you’ve done it yourself without even thinking about it. Forget the other room… brands cannot rely upon “eyeballs” staying in place the way they used to. But ears listen in all directions.

This data all points to the importance of thinking more about your brand’s sound identity, and to putting the work into building a language that can be applied to an ever-expanding world of interactions. Steve Keller, Sonic Strategy Director at Pandora, summarizes it this way:

“The research is clear: brands benefit from an intentional, congruent use of music and sound — and not just sonic logos. Brand voice, navigation sounds, product sounds, retail atmospherics and more all contribute to powerful brand experiences that drive not only brand perception, but consumer behavior as well.”

Getting started…

So you’ve spent your one thousand hours and untold dollars developing a visual identity, logo, and style guide — but the previous paragraph has convinced you to explore your sonic brand. Great! Where do you start? It can feel a little intimidating for a few reasons.

  1. Most people in a position to spearhead this work may have a very sophisticated ear for sound in branding but have not studied music or sound design, meaning they have very little practical vocabulary to describe what they are imagining.
  2. There hasn’t been the kind of standardization of terms and processes that you might see in other areas of design. One company might call it a “sound mark,” another, an “audio mnemonic,” and another, a “sonic logo.” The lack of a clear name for what we do can make the whole process feel unapproachable. And because this work is so specialized, there are simply not enough people doing it to create the critical mass of conferences, pedagogy and trade associations that would encourage a standard process to develop.
  3. Sound, particularly when heard on its own in a very short format, can be infinitely more subjective than visuals. You and I may agree that the blue we are seeing is a little too purple, or that changing to a sans-serif font might help modernize the typography. But a cello section might feel romantic to me and foreboding to you. Even if you execute your instincts, will your audience feel the way you do when they hear it?
Ravi Krishnaswami and Jason Menkes, Co-Owners of COPILOT Music + Sound

As a composer and sound designer working with brands, media networks, ad agencies and game publishers, I’ve created intentional, strategic music and sound for logo animations in a wide variety of contexts, working with my team at COPILOT Music + Sound.

Recent Sonic Branding by COPILOT — Take 2 Interactive’s Private Division

The first thing I’ll say is that anyone who claims to have an iron-clad process and scientifically-proven methodology is great at one thing: sales. Sound and music are best developed in a space that includes the harder to quantify and replicate elements of emotion, improvisation, mistakes, obsessions and gut instincts. In his introduction to The Sonic Boom, veteran composer Joel Beckerman echoes my experience:

“Your sonic strategy — your intentional, informed plan for using sound — is more likely to involve a set of best practices and the right inspiration rather than an algorithm or a rainbow-colored set of fMRI images.”

Visually-minded creatives definitely understand the deeply mysterious element of “feelings’ in using sound and music. Veteran brand designer Scott Matz, owner and chief creative of Thornberg and Forester, says

To me, the fabric of a brand is defined by an authentic feeling. For one to feel, a brand experience must awaken the senses and transcend what the eye sees; enter sonic branding.”

Judy Wellfare, a brilliant creative who runs the NYC agency PLUS, says

“Sound — alone — can make you feel a certain way. It can be transportive, conjuring visual images, memories or feelings, touching the subconscious in a way that other sensory triggers can’t.”

I’ve worked with many brilliant composer/sound designers over the years, and each one of them will bring a unique and valuable voice to a brand, if their ear is valued and trusted. In a medium where there is no right answer, the converse is also true: there is no wrong answer. The bottom line is that this work will make an impact, it can always be improved upon, and it should already be in place, so the best advice on getting started is to GET STARTED.

A common mistake I see on the agency and brand side is that business-minded folks spend way too much time trying to convince themselves that one “right” answer exists, and that the team’s job is to methodically find it. This is a creative medium, and in fact, as I’ve often seen, a whole number of different solutions might work equally well. The most important thing is that the brand and the composer go on a journey together, that the result feels right for the brand, and that they care about what they’ve created at the end of that journey enough to fight for it later on.

It’s not uncommon for a brand to ask a composer for something “as memorable as the Intel logo.”

Intel Logo

With all due respect to important new research bridging neuroscience and musicology, this is getting the cart way before the horse. It’s like telling your spouse that you want to move to a city you can navigate without a GPS. Sure, some cities like New York have gridded sections, making them more accessible, while others, like Boston, well… I always get turned around there. But anyone can master a commute to work in any city, and once you’ve done it a few years, with repetition and consistency, your muscle memory and peripheral vision will take over.

The Intel logo, while it was absolutely intentionally designed to be engaging and easy to remember as a piece of music, is iconic because of repetition and consistency. Creating the sound is only half the work. It barely has any value until it is faithfully applied across every possible audio touchpoint, over several years.

One of my favorite branding projects at COPILOT was a collaboration with Judy’s shop in service of the cable network AMC. They were in the process of purposefully transforming from a basic cable network repackaging old movies (AMC stands for “American Movie Classics”) to a premium original programming powerhouse that rivaled HBO, bringing groundbreaking and award-winning series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead to life, and ultimately becoming a key player in this new “golden” era of scripted television.

AMC Original Series Logo

With a rough motion-graphic logo in place and a starting conversation outlining the importance of this sound signaling the network’s new programming, I sat in my studio with a blank session template in my DAW of choice, Digital Performer. The most important word, echoing in my head, was “drama.” My mind started to travel to some of the great dramatic plays I had seen Off-Broadway, and I kept returning to doors. Doors have a magical quality in theater because you can often see life on both sides at once, inside and outside, and they often punctuate scenes. A door opening might be the beginning of a relationship. A door slamming might be the end. I surely hadn’t articulated these thoughts in the moment, but somehow I ended up mousing through a sound library of door opens and closes, and this sound effect became the centerpiece of this sonic logo.

The rest of the musical composition came down to one simple set of notes, an interval of a fifth, which can become major or minor depending on a third tone being added, and a long period of experimenting with the register and timbre of those notes. Drama can include a wide range of emotions, but the exact strategy of this sound was to transform the brand from a more nostalgic and trivial place to a more ground-breaking and award-winning tier, so I landed somewhere that felt serious in terms of register and modern in terms of tone. I love how it turned out and the piece was successfully used for years to set the tone at the beginning of every episode of original programming. Its creation was a perfect balance of strategy, clear priorities, daydreaming and a commonsense blend of music and sound design.

As of the writing of this piece, Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and others are mere toddler robots, tasked with only the most basic functions, and integrated into only the largest apps out there. As they grow up, it’s not hard to imagine every app functioning through voice commands and giving feedback through sound. Hypersonic speakers that can project sound onto a person in a specific location are just transitioning from prototypes to things you can easily buy and install. VR and AR create infinite possibilities when it comes to triggering sound in ways that transcend physics and real-world practicalities. Brands would be well-served by thinking early, and strategically, about what those sounds will be, what they will mean, and how they will stand out. It’s an exciting time!

Q&A With Judy, Scott & Steve

We chatted with three of our favorite minds when it come to the creativity of branding and sound. Judy Wellfare is the Co-Founder and ECD of the boutique NYC agency PLUS. Scott Matz is President and CEO of Thornberg & Forester, a design and production powerhouse in the media world. Steve Keller is the Sonic Strategy Director at Pandora.

Why should a brand invest in sonic branding?

JUDY

If you think about how music has the power to connect people, sound can be equally as influential. Sound — alone — can make you feel a certain way. It can be transportive, conjuring visual images, memories or feelings, touching the subconscious in a way that other sensory triggers can’t. So, for brands, sonic branding can become a visceral layer that amplifies their story, translating to positive connections and trust.

I remember hearing about how obsessive BMW is about delivering the experience of the Ultimate Driving Machine — how their design experience touches every sense — even down to the sound of their wing mirrors folding in on park mode. Yeah, that’s subtle, almost invisible — but it does complete the picture, and deliver their promised experience.

SCOTT

Music and sound design are two of three main characters in brand expression. To me, the fabric of a brand is defined by an authentic feeling. For one to feel, a brand experience must awaken the senses and transcend what the eye sees; enter sonic branding.

STEVE

I would start by simply reframing the question: why should a brand invest in visual branding? The answers seem obvious. By the same token, I think the answers seem obvious when thinking bout sonic branding. In simplest terms, it’s about creating a sensory impression of your brand that brings recognition, recall and brand linkage in seconds. When you consider branding within an emotional context, what we hear is far more suited to communicating and connecting emotionally than what we see. Finally, the research is clear: brands benefit from an intentional, congruent use of music and sound — and not just sonic logos. Brand voice, navigation sounds, product sounds, retail atmospherics and more all contribute to powerful brand experiences that drive not only brand perception, but consumer behavior as well.

What are your favorite sonic logos? Why is it your favorite? Why do you think it’s successful?

JUDY

My favorite is the TED Talks mnemonic. That sound for me is a promise of something powerful and inspiring. It gives me a moment to collect my focus, tune out of what’s going on around me, and enter into the TED space.

Ted Talks (Mark Ronson)

SCOTT

Design is Law™ is our ethos at Thornberg & Forester. We are not in the business of making things hip and cool for cool’s sake. Everything we do involves careful thinking, creative consideration, and thoughtful design. That said, when it comes to selecting my favorite brand ID mnemonic, I would say it’s the precursor to the current Netflix brand ID. The simplicity of one color and the power of dimension were accentuated with a most amazing, sonic double hit. In fact, it was so great, that the sonic brand has survived the recent Netflix brand ID update.

Netflix Logo

STEVE

Intel: The design is brilliant, playing off the cadence of the brand claim, “Intel inside” and using a sonic palette that captures the essence of the brand’s aspirations of innovation and discovery. More importantly, they incentivized other brands to use the sound mark, a strategy that helped make the Intel sonic logo one of the most ubiquitous mnemonics in history.

T-Mobile: I love the way the five notes of the T-Mobile sonic logo were designed to be an audio representation of the Deutsche Telekom visual logo, which was originally three squares, followed by a “T” and finished off with a final square: “Square-Square-Square-T-Square” becomes “Bum-Bum-Bum-Ba-Bum.”

T-Mobile Logo

Farmer’s Insurance and Nationwide: Both these sonic logos are clever “mini jingles” that include the brand name in the mnemonic. They capture brand sentiment and reinforce recall.

Farmer’s Insurance Jingle
Nationwide Jingle With Peyton Manning

All these examples tick off the boxes on my list of the “measurable parameters” necessary for a successful sonic brand: congruent, appealing, distinct, memorable, flexible and ownable.

What do you look for in a sonic branding pitch or execution?

JUDY

We always look for an open brief. One that invites us to explore the best approach and opportunity for that brand. The end goal is for sonic cues to elicit a positive emotional response, so for some brands, it makes sense to develop sonic branding that connects directly to a product experience e.g. the Coca-Cola sonic snap and fizz of a bottle opening. For others, it’s a more abstract composition that evokes a feeling, connected to a visual palette.

As we’re developing the visual identity we work closely with our sound design partners to develop a sonic language that complements and amplifies the graphic voice.

An example was when we rebranded the TV Channel AMC. Our design system gave AMC a new way to express its editorial point of view on classic movies through a fresh frame of reference. We used the device of “quotations” and their logo frame to snapshot compelling audio and visual moments from classic movies. A strong sonic element started every promo or ident — literally giving AMC a new voice.

SCOTT

Sonic brand pitches generally start wide and should invite rich dialogue between creatives and client partners. Personally, I look for different ways of thinking and unique [instrumental] approaches. Fresh perspectives from seasoned composers truly inspire our creative teams as well. To us, it’s imperative to leave channels for communication and r&d open at all times during the process of creation…this is the only way things become great.

STEVE

Beyond the typical pitch elements like capabilities, experience, and reputation, I’d also explore whether or not the agency/consultancy has:

A well-defined process that includes strategy, design, prototyping, testing and management.

An approach that considers the brand’s entire sonic ecosystem and addresses all the audio touch points available.

An attention to cost efficiencies and audio asset management to help the brand maximize the returns on their audio investments.

What’s one thing you’re trying to change in your conversations about sonic branding?

STEVE

The advertising/marketing/branding community has traditionally approached music and sound as an afterthought — at best, thinking about how it might support a campaign. This focus on short term thinking and tactical executions is often carried into discussions on sonic identity, with the focus primarily on creating the assets themselves. I’m always emphasizing that sonic branding starts with strategy: an attention to discovering insights that marry sound science with sound art. I’m fond of saying that sonic branding doesn’t start with your ears. It starts with what’s between them.

Ravi Krishnaswami and Jason Menkes co-own the New York audio agency COPILOT, where they have partner with brands such as Bethesda Softworks, ESPN, Oxygen Network, McCann Erickson, Verizon, Visa and GE.

Ravi Krishnaswami

Written by

I’m a composer/musician/educator. I co-own COPILOT, where I score ads, video games trailer, I’m Marr in NYC’s Smiths tribute + I teach composition at VCFA.

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