Everything marketers need to know about sonic branding in 2022

We explore why sonic branding is one of the hottest trends for brand strategy in 2022 and asks the experts: What does it really means to find and articulate your audio brand identity?

Have you ever wondered what you would sound like if you were a melody? Do you suspect your favourite cheese brand would have strident tones of sauciness if it could talk? How about your Xbox – have you ever paid attention to the ding it makes every time you choose an option from the menu? And what about what you hear while on hold to your bank, telco or insurance provider: Does it scream personality?  

Now more than ever, what a brand ‘sounds’ like has become as much a part of individual and distinctive brand identity as a visual logo, service experience, advertising and product and services set.  

That’s because sound – and importantly, voice – are becoming increasingly critical in the world we live in. Just look at what digitisation has brought with it as it’s pervaded every aspect of our lives. We interact with all manner of voice-controlled products, touchpoints and services, stretching from conversational commerce and self-service menu options to voice-controlled light switches and home security units, electronic appliances, mobile phones, health devices and more.  

Here, CMO takes a look at why sonic branding is one of the hottest trends for brand strategy in 2022 and asks the experts: What does it really means to find and articulate your audio brand identity?  

Sonic branding’s meteoric rise  

Resonance Sonic Branding founder and audio expert, Ralph van Dijk, describes ‘sonic branding’ as the most common definition for the strategic use of music, voice and sound to articulate a brand.  

“A brand’s sonic identity is to the ears what its visual identity is to the eyes,” he tells CMO. “It’s more than a three-second audio logo. We create brand anthems and playlists to ensure all longform communication, instore music and live events share a common sonic DNA.”  

Over at Sixieme Sons, every sonic branding job consists of designing an ‘earcon’ and sound that leaves a distinctive ear print.  

“Sonic branding is about digging into the brand’s DNA, values, history and purpose. What makes it different from its competitors? What does the brand stand for? What does it want to convey, who is it talking to?” the agency’s managing director, Laurent Cochini, says. “We then transpose the outcome of our research, benchmarking and discussions with the brand into music, looking for the sounds that fit it perfectly and that best express it. Our work does not stop with creation, it also consists in accompanying the brand in the implementation of its musical strategy at all touchpoints.”  

But why is sound so important? As WARC by Ascential’s recent report on sonic branding in July 2020 pointed out, people react to a new sound up to 10 times faster – about 30 milliseconds – than they respond to a visual stimulus. The way our brains process sound is also more linked into subliminal processes than conscious thought.  

Then there’s the Man Made Studio research program, which showed subconscious reaction to sound is responsible for 86 per cent of our decision to engage (or avoid) an associated experience. Among the top naturally occurring sounds for positive subconscious emotional appeal on Man Made’s ‘Sonic Humanism spectrum’ are a baby laughing, applause, birdsong and orchestra tuning. Designed sounds with distinctiveness and power, meanwhile, included one undisclosed brand’s weather alert, another brand’s TV set-top box and a third brand’s home security keypad alert.  

An Ipsos study into distinctive brand assets is a further indicator of audio’s power. In its February 2020 findings across more than 2000 video advertising pieces of creative, sonic brand cues were 8.53 times more powerful than visual brand assets tested in terms of performance. The latest research by Analytics Partners into the power of audio with consumers also demonstrates the important role audio plays in the marketing mix. It found strong opportunities for brands across digital audio services and digitised radio and podcasting, particularly when it comes to shorter-term messaging.  

The music and voice of an ad can provide so much emotional impact, and with consistency can makes a brand more memorable

Ralph van Dijk, Resonance Sonic Branding

“With higher levels of engagement and the ubiquity of audio, brands can reach consumers with compelling messages at the most relevant times,” van Dijk comments. “The music and voice of an ad can provide so much emotional impact, and with consistency can makes a brand more memorable.”  

Lippincott senior partner in design, Kevin Grady, agrees any brand with customers possessing ears should be placing greater emphasis on sonic branding efforts right now.  

“With our collective shorter attention spans and more media channels competing for our attention than at any point in human history, brands that strategically and holistically embrace sound will be at a distinct advantage over those that don’t,” he says.  

Sixième Son managing director, Laurent Cochini, says 90 per cent of the best performing brand music is tailor-made. “The popularity of a famous licensed commercial track, on the other hand, does not gauge how successful the content will be,” he warns. “On the contrary, brands who used trendy, popular tracks seemed to add more complexity and actually triggered a negative reaction.”  

Longevity also factors strongly in a sonic brand’s success, and nine out of 10 of the best performing sonic identities have been in use for at least five years.  

“Brands that invest the most on media do not necessarily have the best performing sonic identities,” Cochini says. “It is not quantity, but quality and strategy, that make a difference.”  

Global creative strategy director at MassiveMusic, Roscoe Williamson, says the sheer amount of communication across channels today makes cut through for brands harder than ever.  

“It’s a battlefield out there in a very fragmented landscape and any tools the marketer has up their sleeve to help add cohesion and build salience should be used,” he says. “However, despite all this, only about 20 per cent of the world's top 100 brands have any kind of definable sonic identity.”  

Orchestrating audio branding  

Audrey Arbeeny is founder and CEO of Emmy Award winning boutique agency, Audiobrain. Her credits including being the music supervisor for the last 10 Olympic games with the NBC, as well as creating iconic and familiar sounds employed by Google, Microsoft Xbox 360, Whirlpool, KitchenAid and McDonald’s. She’s done everything from the powerful official anthem, in-stadium film score and rock theme for the New York Giants, to orchestrating the moving processional theme song for Major League Soccer involving 80 musicians.  

Arbeeny sees a contradiction in sonic uptake right now: Brands are both maturing in their understanding of sound across a holistic brand and customer experience; while failing to recognise just how far their audio identity extends. For those that have stepped in, she expresses concern their conception of ‘sonic branding’ doesn’t go far enough to truly have brand impact.  

“There has been a surge in companies that say they are doing this, but when we listen to what they put out there, they’re not at level of something like what Apple did for years when they came out with ‘Think Different’ and held it for years,” she says.    

“There some are brands not doing the discovery, research, strategy, understanding and technical optimisation required - it’s more music production that’s being launched and touted as the greatest sonic branding. But if you line the sounds up, sometimes they’re just sounds, not a holistic and complete experience. That’s the part that has to catch up.”  

According to Arbeeny, companies that do holistic sonic branding legitimately and well go across all touchpoints to ensure sound connected and reflective of one brand. She compares it to the different shades of a Crayola pencil box and brands working out what shade of green they sound like in every aspect of engagement.  

“Sonic branding is where you take the characteristics and find something very unique when they’re blended. It’s like a custom pair of shoes – it’s not going to sound like anyone else,” she explains.   

Arbeeny also paints audio branding as both about overtly connecting to consumers, as well as something that serves a sub-conscious purpose. As an example, she notes Jaybird’s sonic blueprint and voices used for its wireless headphone range, which has been extended into the whole experience through to the hold music customers hear on the service line. 

Sonic branding is where you take the characteristics and find something very unique when they’re blended. It’s like a custom pair of shoes – it’s not going to sound like anyone else

Audrey Arbeeny, Audiobrain

“We write music within the sonic blueprint developed that’s unique to the brand and what that brand stands for. They love it and people notice it,” she says. “But we have other situations where consumers don’t mention sound at all. Yet when we do consumer testing, people will say things like the colour has become more vivid. No, the colours didn’t become more vivid, it’s just the sound is more appropriately aligned with the brand experience.  

“Or a consumer might say a product in a restaurant took less time to order. No, it didn’t take less time to order, it’s just the sounds were thoughtfully research, tested and aligned with the experience.”  

One brand betting big on sonic branding for this reason is Etihad Airways. In 2021, the airline partnered with Sixieme Son to develop what’s been touted as the most ambitious and robust sonic system created by an airline, with an audio branding grounded in its Arabic roots and traditional Al Sadu weaving. Sixieme Sons blended traditional instruments, both organic and electronic and including the ney, kanoon and oriental percussion, in order to attempt to reflect the weaving process. Local musicians were brought in to produce the audio.  

Etihad’s sonic branding is being employed from booking through to landing and extending across digital communications, TVCs, terminals, ringtones, lounges, the call centre and onboard flights. At time of launch, Etihad Airways VP brand, marketing and sponsorship, Amina Taher, said the brand’s promise is about bringing the world to Abu Dhabi.  

“Inspired by the UAE capital, the launch of our sonic identity is an expression, not just of our home, but of our culture,” he said.   

Williamson highlights Intel as the standout performer when it comes to sonic branding. Used religiously and evolved subtly and iteratively over decades, the unique sound logo has created a huge amount of brand value, he says. “Intel has been ruthlessly consistent with its deployment across commercials and content.”  

Another good example of consistency and longevity in audio branding is Woolworths. “Like many of Australia’s most familiar audio logos, it was derived from a jingle that had been used for decades,” van Dijk says. “While the full jingle is rarely used today, we work with them to ensure that the seven note Fresh Food People melody is incorporated in every ad – even when a licenced piece of music is used.”  

Instilling trust  

One brand relatively new to sonic branding but investing in a big way is Mastercard. In 2019, the payments company debuted a new sound architecture based around a distinct and memorable melody aimed at seamlessly connecting with its wider brand identity globally. The melody was developed in partnership with musicians, artists and agencies globally, including Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, and adapted to harness operatic, cinematic, playful and regional styles. The core 8-bar melody has been extended across a range of assets including musical scores, advertisements, sound logos, ringtones, hold music and point-of-sale sounds. 

Mastercard VP head of integrated marketing and communications, Australasia, Kirsty Redfearn, bestows audio and multi-sensory marketing with the power to enhance emotion, making it an extremely powerful tool to connect consumers with the Mastercard brand.

“The Mastercard sonic checkout experience provides stronger assurance on critical safety, trust and acceptance needs that is double what we’d see without the multi-sensory elements,” she says. “The extension of the Mastercard sonic brand ensures we continue to enhance our payment experience wherever consumers use their card.”  

Mastercard’s journey started with a research program assessing how its brand essence could be translated into the audio realm. Since then, the company has built a repository of more than 200 different versions of the Mastercard sonic brand globally, embedding it into over 100 million points of interaction.  

The Mastercard sonic checkout experience provides stronger assurance on critical safety, trust and acceptance needs that is double what we’d see without the multi-sensory elements

Kristy Redfearn, Mastercard

At the recent Australian Open, Mastercard’s audio work included a 360-degree sonic branding campaign activation. In partnership with Spotify, innovative bus shelters across Melbourne played the sonic track alongside the sound of the cheers from the Australian Open, and commuters were able to access Mastercard sonic Spotify playlists including ambassador choices from Jim Courier, Naomi Osaka and Alicia Molik.    

“Our research in Australia shows 65 per cent of consumers believe they are purchasing from a trustworthy store when Mastercard sonic is played during the checkout process and 59 per cent feel better about shopping at the store over others,” Redfearn says. “By adding Mastercard animation to sonic to create an enhanced multisensory effect, we also saw a 25 per cent lift in consumer response.”  

Why sonic branding is so important in 2022  

For someone who’s worked on sonic branding for 25 years, Arbeeny finds the hype around the topic right now “strange”. Yet she’s the first to admit the environments that exist today for an audio brand identity are the widest they have ever been. No surprises: The bigger driver is disruptive technology.  

“So many products need sound. You don’t need to have buzzes or beeps, you can have great sounds, such as those we did for Whirlpool and KitchenAid,” Arbeeny says. “Consumers have a lot of choice and ways to interact with a brand. So if they hear one thing in one place, and something different in another, it’s jarring. It can’t be random, sound needs to feel part of the immersive experience they want to participate in.  

“Then there’s emotional connection. People are disconnected emotionally, especially now. We text, do video calls. Music and sound are ways to bring emotion into the conversation. If you’re on a quiet screen or something that feels warm and inviting and appropriate to the brand, it connects the audience. They want their products to sound good.  

“There’s also a real desire for nostalgia – live and in movie theatres, vinyl, holding a book. Sound being from the emotional centre is a great connector.”  

Grady describes technology as reaching a tipping point, presenting an unprecedented number of ways for consumers to experience brands beyond traditional advertising, from branded podcasts to audio cues in digital transactions.  

“Through myriad voice technology applications, smarter homes are enabling new ways to interact with branded content,” he says. “Shopping, socialising, playing, creating and listening are all more virtual than ever before, often happening simultaneously as people multitask.  

“Our attention is more scattered than ever, and we are just as likely to experience brands through our ears as through our eyes. Add to this the demonstrated recall effectiveness that sound enables, and the surge in sonic branding has become inevitable.”  

Product sounds have such a vast reach - billions of people a day sometimes - and build up huge amounts of brand equity very quickly, Williamson agrees.  

“Consciously or not, brands like Microsoft, Visa, WhatsApp and Apple are literally peppering their content spots with these sounds. It’s not traditional sonic branding but it’s highly effective,” he says. “One tiny product sound moment on screen pulls you straight back into the brand world.”     

Van Dijk sees consistent audio brand assets uniting communications across all touchpoints and improving attribution.  

“I’m sure in 2022 ad lengths will continue to get shorter. Sonic branding provides a layer of personality that will add impact whatever the length of the ad unit,” he says. “Brands investing in distinctive audio assets in 2022 will have a competitive advantage.”  

Veritonic founder and CEO, Scott Simonelli, believes audio has often been treated as an all-or-nothing tactic by many brands historically. Veritonic produces the annual Audio Logo Index in Australia in partnership with Southern Cross Austereo.

"What we are seeing now, however, is an appreciation of audio’s complementary nature to larger marketing strategies," he says. "Audio is a personal, one-to-one medium that does not require a screen, which makes it an incredibly powerful, portable, and accessible medium for both consumers and marketers." 

One area Williamson spies growing sonic branding investment is in live sporting events. MassiveMusic has worked with UK telco, O2, on a suite of sounds to enhance the experience of international rugby matches at Twickenham stadium. For example, kick off and tries were all in keeping with the overall sonic brand, extending through to sponsorship.    

Another emerging trend Williamson points to is activation of sonic brands on platforms like TikTok.  

“TikTok creators are enjoying reimagining sonic brands, creating trends and sonic memes in the process,” he says. Examples of a purely organic meme is the Apple UX sound / Brittany trend, while McDonalds in Australia has also opened up its iconic jingle to creators on the social platform.  

“The point is that sonic brands are assets starting to be engaged with and played with by consumers,” Wiliamson says.  

Then there’s the burgeoning health and wellness market. Arbeeny sees health-oriented tech as one of the latest areas for sonic branding to shine.  

“You have diabetic devices, life alerts, blood pressure machines that read out and tell you what it means, telemedicine. Sound makes it all accessible and helps us understand numbers and when to call the doctor,” she says. “We also have things connecting people directly to the physician’s office and transmitting data from their apnoea machines or pacemaker. It's connecting digital with the physical. All of these things we’re creating sound for.  

“I think that, alongside conversational AI [artificial intelligence], health tech will be the biggest industry leaders for sound and sonic branding in 2022.”  

Covid’s impact  

Covid has of course played its part too. Along with digitisation, it’s accelerated changing consumer sentiments towards a push for brands to ‘do good’, and a broader desire to foster brand connection on a human wavelength.  

“Without question, Covid has changed the way we live and the way we experience brands, particularly in terms of physical experiences diminishing while virtual experiences flourish,” Grady says. “We’re all doing a lot more at home, having the things we need delivered directly to our doors. What’s more, generational differences are more pronounced than ever: Gen Z has never known a time when digital transactions weren’t the norm, and they’ve been weaned on technology-based human interactions as well.  

“A deep and understandable craving for authentic human connection has led to acceleration of listener interaction on platforms like Twitch, where communities of people are experiencing and reacting to digital content together in real-time. Much of this human connection is based around shared beliefs, with growing expectations that brands echo these sensibilities.”   

In an omnichannel environment with a multi-tasking audience, sound becomes every bit as important as the visual, “sometimes more so”, Grady argues. “We’re listening as we do almost everything.”  

Sonic branding moves important brand metrics in significant ways. Grady notes Spotify audio-based advertising programs led to up to a 26 per cent increase in brand awareness, 46 per cent increase in brand favourability and 51 per cent increase in brand consideration. What’s more, an 86 per cent correlation has been made between the reaction to sound and a desire to return to that experience.  

“Taken together, these macro trends and statistics suggest we should be changing our conceptions and approach to branding, with sound increasingly at the centre,” Grady says. “Sound is the fastest human sense, faster than smell, taste, sight and even touch. Combine that with the fact that music elicits emotion, a significant driver in brand loyalty, and the potential for sound in branding – from proprietary navigation sounds to full-on anthems – is crystal clear.”  

Arbeeny is another citing clients increasingly looking to inject emotional characteristics into their sonic identity. “It used to be more brand characteristics-led, whereas now it’s now more empathetic, health focused or collaborative,” she says.  

Sixieme Son’s founder and CEO, Michael Boumendil, found the perfect way to express it: It’s all about ‘emotional decency’.  

“You have to sound right, to find the right sound that fits the brand. Otherwise, you sound fake and inauthentic,” Cochini says. “We have seen good and bad things in what was to be the world after Covid. One of the bad ones: Briefs tend to sound the same. This can lead to some marketing demagogy and be counterproductive as audiences are more and more sensitive to this.  

“On the other hand, brands are getting back to basics, to focus on what is most essential to them, at their simplest. Don't get me wrong, this is not at the expense of the ability to dream. Music allows brands to be in line with the current times, while at the same time invoking the imagination and taking us on a journey into the brand's universe.”  

Wellness and audio is an untapped area for brands to play in, continues Williamson. “We know post-Covid that brands are taking the mental wellness of their staff and customers more seriously than ever,” he comments.  

“In tandem, there are some really interesting developments in the field of ‘functional music’ that are showing promising signs of helping here. Essentially, this is music designed and tested to positively affect the listener in a certain way.”  

MassiveMusic teamed up with Legal & General and the Music and Mind team at Goldsmiths University in London to create an EP of functional music tracks designed to aid sleep, increase concentration and boost calm. Branded music tracks were tested in laboratory conditions to ensure efficacy and the EP was then released for all to benefit from on Spotify.    

Mastercard’s mission to have a globally adaptable sonic identity that will resonate across genres has only become stronger with the shift to a global online marketplace enhanced by the pandemic, Redfearn says.  

“It’s imperative our sound represents the same sense of security, acceptance and trust that the visual logo represents today, and which consumers are used to seeing at physical checkouts,” she says.  

Up next: Your checklist of what to do - and not to do - when building your sonic brand

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