A Brief History of Sonic Branding
A deep dive into the roots and future of brand sound
A deep dive into the roots and future of brand sound
“Sonic branding is a holistic approach to a brand’s use of music and sound across all relevant touchpoints.”
The marketing world talks about sonic branding today, with companies finally realising how there can be much more to the auditive dimension of their brand than a catchy little sonic logo. Yet sonic branding has come a long way before evolving into a holistic perspective for the age of digital media.
Started from the bottom, now we’re here, but how did it begin and where will it go?
The journey of sonic branding is more complex than a YouTube video of the greatest sonic logos could explain. It’s a combined history of sound technology, auditive culture and the evolution of brand marketing. Moreover, sonic branding wouldn’t be possible at all if there wasn’t a reason for the human brain to evolve a powerful mechanism linking sonic events to intuitive reactions.
If we then think of music as a play with sound, its catchiness comes as no surprise. Even more so because, for most of human history, there was no recording technology and songs could only be kept alive through memorisation.
How we came up with music in the first place is still a mystery but it probably happened before language was invented. That means our ancestors were getting a groove on long before they started having elaborate conversations.
Actually, Charles Darwin thought that human beings only used melody and rhythm to attract their partners. Think about that next time you start Tinder.
With this little bit of (pre)history in mind, this timeline will help to make sense of how we came to link sounds to brands and where we’re heading to.
Ready? Let’s do this 💪
Roman senator Paulinus of Nola introduces church bells into the Christian church to call worshippers for prayer. Let’s treat it as an early example of sonic branding. After all, church bells do a good job driving Christianity’s brand recognition.
By the middle ages, church bells are widespread in Europe and serve several social purposes such as waking people up at night to let them know what time it is. That’s probably when sleep deprivation made its first cameo appearance.
The haka is an ancient posture dance of the New Zealand Māori traditionally used to prepare a war party for battle. It was performed either on the battle field or as the war party was leaving their own village en route to a battle.
The All Black Haka, one of the most feared and respected pre-match rituals in the world, has a proud history. Ka mate, Ka mate, the original one, was composed in the early 19th century by famous Māori warrior chief Te Rauparaha. It’s incredible to think that it was the only haka performed by the All Blacks until 2005.
Fast forward to the 19th century, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville produces the first sound recording in history – although with no means to play it back.
The much more popular gramophone is invented by Thomas Edison only 17 years later, now also able to replay records. Definitely a cooler feature, we find, and that’s probably why similar phonographic technology remains the standard throughout most of the 20th century.
The Lumière brothers open the world’s first cinema in Paris. They quickly realise that moving images without sound fail to keep people’s attention. For lack of suitable audio technology, they hire an orchestra to play along with the movies. It quickly becomes an international sensation.
Pavlovian conditioning, randomly discovered by Russian physiologist Pavlov, is basically learning through association. It refers to when two stimuli are linked together to produce a new learned response in a person or animal.
Pavlov predicted his dogs would salivate in response to the food placed in front of them, but he noticed that they would begin to salivate whenever they heard the footsteps of his assistant who was bringing them the food.
So he started experimenting with a bell: he rang the bell, then fed the dogs. After doing this repeatedly, the pairing of food and bell eventually established the dog’s Conditioned Response of salivating to the sound of the bell.
The jingle, back then a popular cultural form of spoken-word rhyme, becomes an advertisers’ favourite viral marketing strategy.
Thanks to memorable rhymes that flow easily off the tongue and convey a message, jingles create brand recall and activation. Examples include the famous ‘Have you tried Wheaties?’ rhyme for General Mills’ cereal brand which later gets broadcasted on radio and skyrockets their sales, saving the brand from ruin.
Radio rocks the USA as the first electronic mass medium and soon faces an air time battle between music and advertisements. Music clearly wins, as the new medium is considered a public service by the government (and a threat to revenues by the print industry), resulting in an advertisement ban.
The solution? Brands assemble their own music groups such as Vick’s Vap-o-rub Quartet or the Lucky Strike Orchestra. The term ‘soap opera’ comes up in this era as many radio dramas are sponsored by soap companies to bypass the ad ban.
Film scoring becomes common practice thanks to the rapid innovation in film and audio technology. Film composers explore sound and music as carriers of every human emotion and with this lay the groundwork for today’s sonic branding toolbox.
The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ forever defines the sound of dread as a high-pitched violin staccato in Western cultural memory.
Coca Cola’s jingle ‘I’d like to buy the world a coke’ is so popular that it’s being reworded and re-recorded twice by The New Seekers and The Hillside Singers, both quickly becoming global hit records. 35 years later, MassiveMusic records a new version with Dutch singer Berget Lewis to pay tribute to the original.
French commercial radio guru Jean Pierre Baçelon coins the term ‘la marque sonique’ after analysing air time sales and concluding that ads with sonic branding elements achieved more awareness, sales and success.
An epic year for sonic branding: Intel premiers its famous sonic logo, now estimated to be played every 5 seconds somewhere in the world. Ambient pioneer Brian Eno composes the Windows 95 startup melody – on a Mac, ironically. With just six seconds in length, it’s probably his most-listened-to piece to date.
In the same year, Nokia introduces its iconic ringtone now widely echoed in popular culture, back then still in its monophonic form (before becoming a polyphonic, piano, guitar and then dubstep version).
International creative music agency MassiveMusic is founded in Amsterdam ???? Sounds familiar.
Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ infests millions of minds with its brilliant hook engineering at a time where sonic branding enjoys major media attention, demonstrating both the viral power of songwriting and the inspiration advertisement is taking from pop music.
In ‘Minority Report’, Steven Spielberg presents the high-tech future scenario of Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story as a world where personalised branding messages are beamed through directional ultrasound speakers at pedestrians with the help of facial recognition software. The real technology of these ‘audio spotlights’ or ‘sonic lasers’ approaches maturity today, rendering the scenario of hyper locational auditory advertisements much more imminent. This pops the question: how do we keep from cluttering the acoustic space around us?
With ‘I’m Lovin’ It’, Justin Timberlake delivers McDonalds’ new brand slogan – first disguised as his own song with no connection to burgers. The commercials go on air half a year after JT’s song hits the Billboard charts, making the company’s first global marketing campaign since 1955. The history of who wrote it is controversial with claims coming from Pharrell Williams and Pusha T amongst others.
A decade of rapid transformation brought about by the ever shorter innovation cycles of digital media begins, introducing smartphones, social networks, voice assistants and music streaming platforms into the daily lives of billions of humans. This opens completely new playing fields for sonic branding such as podcasts, voice skills or UI sounds.
With 8,25 seconds, we humans now officially have shorter attention spans than goldfish. This makes sonic branding and goldfish look very smart. As our daily information uptake exceeds our visual processing powers, sound as an alternative communication channel becomes much more important.
MassiveVoices, the voice-casting arm of MassiveMusic, is enlisted to find the voice of Bixby, Samsung’s virtual assistant, helping the brand to be heard in a very noisy world. The result demonstrates how the unique collaboration of specialist voice development and sound branding can result in an innovative, human and intelligent agent that matches Samsung’s brand identity.
Another big year for sonic branding with more and more brands finally realising how having a sonic brand identity can benefit them, their audience and the world we live in. The most well-known example of 2019 was Mastercard which decided to go that route, connecting payment experience to marketing communications.
At the end of the decade, the vision for sonic branding’s future becomes clear: the ubiquity of digital media and screenless interfaces requires brands to have an overarching strategy for their brand sound and a consistent sonic DNA across this vast media ecosystem.
This overview already tells that both music and sonic branding are results of our efforts to instrumentalise sound through technology. A compelling narrative for this is presented by French social theorist, presidential advisor and generally cool guy Jacques Attali: contemporary music is the early reflection of a society’s social, economic and technological developments, even able to predict coming crises.
Bach and Mozart reflected nothing more than the bourgeois desire for harmony while Jimi Hendrix expressed the 60s’ dream of freedom better than any social theory. In this regard, sonic branding may be a reflection of the 20th century’s rising brand economy. Its current wave certainly reflects the imminent attention crash and the dawning experience economy.
The metaverse is here and music and sound have already found their space in the new digital realm. From a user perspective, it offers the opportunity to completely personalise their online environment.
We told you in 2015 that humans’ attention span had been reduced to less than that of a goldfish. Well since then, it’s decreased even more. Don’t believe us? Look it up.
The short-video format of new social media and audio-led platforms such as TikTok made audiences more receptive to sonic elements as opposed to visual ones, reinforcing the fact that music and sound are now one of the most effective tools that brands have for connecting with their consumers.
Audiences want to be more in control than ever before. Think of it. Users don’t make music to fit the videos on TikTok, they make videos to fit the music.
What’s the take-away? Pro-tip for brands in 2022: don’t try to control audiences with content but instead, inspire audiences to make content and give them control.
The recent ‘Metaverse Music Awards’ made waves in the music industry with both artists and brands such as Lizzo and Roblox taking part in the event. This switch challenges traditional event formats but turns out to reap some benefits like increased audience engagement. The question is, will it stay and solidify? And if so, how quick will brands be to hop on this?
Right now, the metaverse is a relatively uncharted realm. For the majority of consumers, it’s just the next ‘complex business word’, but for brands, it’s caught the eye of those who want to experiment and make the most of the new audio playground.
The point is, metaverse or no metaverse, there is no world in which brands can afford to be seen and not heard.
As we always say: “The sky is no longer the limit – imagination is the only restriction”.
Where we're standing
If we have to compare it to years ago, it’s interesting to see that we’re closing the gap between the content delivered by the advertising world and the actual engagement that the audience has with the brand when it comes to products, services and experiences. This requires a much broader signature than just a two-second logo animation. Technology will drive this, laying out the context for interactions – something we’re already seeing in the rise and consumption of voice activation devices.
Thanks to the interactions we have with them on a daily basis, brands might know us better than our mothers (don’t take it personal, mom). This results in new and sophisticated data collection methods, where the gathered data is used to make us indulge in more tailored content. In a world where everyone is different and has different needs, we’re now entering the age where brands are trying to establish a very unique and personal approach, purely through data. The role that sound will play here is huge.
One of the biggest changes for audio and day-to-day brand and product experience will happen in the mobility sector. With the gradual disappearance of the combustion engine, we’re re-inventing the sound of mobility all together. The best of both worlds would be to focus on safety whilst keeping it ownable for your brand. But how do you do that? I bet there are a few Research and Development people at Harley Davidson HQ already pondering over that.
Interactive audio, immersive 3D audio and Sonic UX may be the next big leaps of this near future along with an increasingly complex ecosystem of connected devices, autonomous agents and user interfaces that lives through sonic communication.
Sonic Apocalypse? No, thanks
Yet, if on the one hand we’re looking at an upsurge in sonic brand identities, on the other hand we understand we have a big responsibility: to prevent this ending in an unshaped and cacophonous environment. Something that, unfortunately, is already happening in hospitals, with staff failing to hear the alarms because of the never-ending amount of bleeps and sounds around them.
We have to be careful when redesigning the sonic landscape of the future. Problems like noise pollution or excessive screen staring on one hand and new territories like voice interaction, ubiquitous media and directional ultrasound on the other will make it even more challenging.
Our responsibility is to ensure that the future does not sound as cacophonic as in ‘Minority Report’ but more like an orchestral soundscape of harmonic frequencies, humbly inserting brand sound into the acoustic ecology of the smart city.