Sonic branding is a hot topic in our industry. However, there is a deep misunderstanding about what, exactly, it is. The truth is that real sonic branding is not one-size-fits-all. There are as many possible sonic programs as there are brands in the world, but truly great programs are built to create emotional equity and heighten the experience for every individual brand.
Where do you begin unlocking these opportunities? Here's a hint: Real sonic branding is about concepts, not just musical notes.
Liberty Mutual ("Liberty … Liberty … Li-berty") uses a memorable "jingle" concept at the end of all their ads, which repeats the name of the brand over and over to increase attribution and recall. That's their concept. Netflix and Hulu use an audio "meme" upon startup to accomplish the same thing, but they also create functional and emotional benefits. The meme is their concept. And that meme drives behavior—does anyone out there binge-watch?—and is part of the user interface. Why? So you know your device is working, and so it eliminates any perceived delay or hiccup there might be in your streaming experience.
Brands such as IMAX use elements of a "theme." Their concept is to score the experience everywhere; to create a subtle, pre-show underscore to their messages—welcoming audiences, communicating to them about safety, or reminding them to visit the concession stand in case they forgot the popcorn. Then, the theme is used in the music for the countdown, which immediately precedes every one of IMAX's 1.4 million annual movie showings around the world. Additionally, arrangements of the theme are used as underscoring for behind-the-scenes content that helps launch the IMAX version of each film in the digital space. IMAX doesn't own the movie, but they DO own their one-of-a-kind way to experience it. And they use their theme to package up that movie experience and get credit for what they bring to it.
AT&T takes a different approach. They integrate their identity, theme and sonic logo throughout their entire ecosystem—from ringtones to call centers, from sponsorships like the Tribeca Film Festival to permanent installations like in-game use at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, and AT&T's flagship retail store. The brand even utilizes sonic memes from their identity and integrates them into interactive experiences in the College Football Hall of Fame and the upcoming Discovery District, a downtown Dallas destination where the sonic identity drives touchless, interactive experiences.
These companies successfully utilize the power of sound in unique and powerful ways that are perfect for their brands.
It goes far beyond just trying to create a better sonic logo. The smartest brands recognize that concept-driven work moves beyond a single campaign—just like a great visual identity—and that rigorously strategized work is vital to future-proofing your marketing. When you look at it this way, you can show up in relevant ways, and in newer media, which is increasingly audio-first or audio-only. Think of podcasts and TikTok videos: There are more music business integration opportunities than ever. Recording artists are far more willing to collaborate with brands in ways that their fans will think is cool and accessible. Great sonic programs make all of this possible. Why would brands settle for following culture when they can be part of creating it?
Are jingles dead? Don't say that to Farmers Insurance or McDonald's. Are sonic logos dead? Don't say that to Intel or AT&T. These concepts work for these brands. However, sonic branding is evolving and becoming a much more sophisticated exercise that must be tailored to each brand. And beyond providing a meaningful experience for customers, these concepts must move real business and brand metrics. They must be tested using subconscious research to help guide development of the program and prove its efficacy. Here's a common mistake: Conscious research doesn't give insight into how music and sound make people feel in relation to an experience; it tells you what they think they feel.
Real sonic branding is about concepts that are designed specifically for a brand and move audiences, and great sonic programs are the blueprint which inspire creativity and success. Marketers who seize this opportunity will be the winners. Those who don't will simply just add to the clutter; they'll be nothing but noise.