Sonic Branding and hearing watermelons

Sonic branding is the latest trend in communications. What does your organisation sound like?

By Gabrielle Lane,

Humans have an innate understanding of whether sounds are ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. To help us survive, our senses have evolved to tell us about our environment based on our previous experiences. This means sensory input triggers memories and affects our emotional state.

Every sound has significance – just like that euphoric dance track that reminds you of your student union and its alcoholic beverages.

On a biological level, our ears are more sensitive than our eyes, compensating for the effect of darkness on our vision. That means sounds make a greater impression on us than images. So, it’s logical for organisations to invest as much in their audio identity as their visual assets. But why now?

Statistics show that voice-activated technology is being adopted at a faster rate than radio, television and smartphones ever were. Gartner predicts that, by 2020, 30% of internet use won’t involve a screen, so brands could become invisible online. We need to be able to hear them.

“In a voice-dominated world, sonic branding becomes much more important,’ says Jim Cridlin, head of innovation at Mindshare.

The agency’s new sonic-branding consultancy has been advising the likes of Campari and Pandora. In simple terms, a sonic brand consists of an ‘audio logo’ (like the MGM lion’s roar)and a theme tune. Both should reflect the values of an organisation.

“The tone, tempo and instruments each need to say something about the brand,’ explains Dan Lafferty, director of music and voice at specialist agency PHMG.

This nuts-and-bolts approach is intended to be objective and to minimise the emotional bias of the composer. Two of the experts interviewed for this piece cited the four-beat chime of the Intel processor as an example of a successful audio logo. “The synthetic sounds reflect a technological product,” says Lafferty. “It’s easily recognisable,” adds Cridlin.

When it comes to music, there are technical aspects to consider – frequencies can dictate whether sounds are regarded positively. But cultural trends are influential too. “Cultural niches are often associated with different sounds and musical styles, so, to remain relevant, it’s important to keep track of what is going on in society,” says Juanita Pascual, a musician and consultant at sonic-branding studio Signature Tones.

Used consistently, music and audio logos will become mnemonic devices. “At the core of a sonic brand, they help companies to reinforce their identity,” says Lafferty.


Then there’s the new frontier. The creation of a brand voice represents a huge opportunity for comms professionals. If consumers are using voice tools like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant on their digital devices to access information, it pays to be able to talk back.

This is particularly true if your target audience is young, male and affluent. Research by Mindshare and JWT Intelligence shows that half of 18- to 34-year-olds, 43% of men and 48% of people with a household income of more than £50,000 use voice­-assistance tools monthly or more, compared to 37% of the general population.

“We see four needs for brands in this space,” explains Ciidlin. “The first is education about the new landscape; the second is e-commerce opportunities; the third is discoverability, so that, when someone asks for your product, you show up; and the last is interaction with consumers.”

The final two are most relevant for PR professionals.

So, what do you need to do? First, you must help specify the gender and tone

of your brand voice. “Think of the human qualities associated with your brand,” advises Cridlin. “Consumers treat voice-activated devices like people; the voice you choose is who your brand is.”

The next step is to create content. What will your brand say? According to Mindshare and JWT Intelligence, users of voice technology are motivated mainly by convenience – 63% of regular UK users use it for online search. “To optimise content, understand the questions that consumers want to ask about your brand or category and address them,” says Cridlin.

Your responses should match the comms strategy used on other channels. “The data we have so far shows that the questions asked through voice search aren’t that different from what has been typed before,” adds Cridlin. “But vocal searches are usually slightly longer and more colloquial. This means that, when we play back content to a consumer, it needs to be conversational.”

The opportunities are huge. Future-gazers point to the creation of brand-related Alexa Skills (voice-activated tasks) that could connect consumers and organisations. For example, media brands can create Flash Briefings – podcast-style short news updates – that consumers can play on demand.


There are two other tweaks to brand voice that strike at the heart of communication itself.

The first is personalisation: the ability to tailor language used by a brand voice. “Once you’ve created a sonic identity, you can talk to different audiences in different ways based on previous interactions. For example, a brand may know that I appreciate fact -based information more than other people,” says Cridlin.

The second is vocabulary: voice pioneers can shape the language used by their audience. By using specific terms for services or products – in the same way that Starbucks shaped how we order coffee ‘flat’ or ‘skinny’ – an organisation can create a lexicon that goes beyond voice technology and infiltrates social life. “Once you’ve understood ‘who’ a brand is and how to converse with it, it starts permeating everything you do,” says Cridlin.

That said, sonic branding is not an independent art. “Traditional communication through print and television is super critical because voice interactions in particular are audience-led. You need to be in their head to begin with,” he explains. “A sonic identity is manifested in all other communication that we have.”

The same is true of audio logos and theme tunes. “Sonic branding, like any other communication, is an opportunity to present the best version of yourself,” says PHMG’s Lafferty. “A sonic brand is not a static, one-dimensional, one-off piece of work.”

Influence worked with PHMG to create our own theme tune. You can check out the full story of how it was created and listen to the tune here.

A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q1 2019, with the title ‘I Can Hear Watermelon and Bacardi Breezers’

Featured image courtesy of flickr user Leonid Mamchenkov via CC3.0


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