Brand identity is often considered a strictly visual form – logos, marks, animations, mascots, etc. – but the aural dimension, sound or sonic design, has long played a role in identifying sources and sponsors. Consider the cornu horns of the Roman legions, or the bronze gongs of Buddhist temples.

With the advent of radio and television, sound design became a core identifier of networks and brands. Over time, sonic design has spread throughout the media and now stands at the forefront of aural marketing memes as “sonic interaction design.” Here we explore the role of sonic design in branding with one of the field’s leaders, Joel Beckerman of Man Made Music, whose iconic brand sounds span across telecoms, film, and even network television.

Brandingmag: It seems the media is increasingly riffing on “sonic branding.” Can you define it as you see fit and cite a few classic examples?

Joel Beckerman: We define sonic branding as the strategic use of music and sound to build brands, and we generally think about it in two categories — identities and branded experiences. Before we create any music or sound, strategically, we answer the question, “what should this brand sound like?” to help us uniquely and emotionally connect to all its audiences and help them feel the brand promise, and gain attribution and awareness in the marketplace. 

You might be most familiar with Sonic Logos — those little snippets of sound at the end of advertising. Most people can recognize the iconic sonic logos for NBC, AT&T (a Man Made creation), and HBO (which we reinterpreted for them in a number of iterations five years ago) in an instant. Other famous marks include Intel and Disney’s, based on the song “When you Wish Upon a Star.” But there are also brands who are more famous for their product sounds, like Apple’s computer startup sound and ‘sent’ mail swoosh.

Sonic logos, however, are just the tip of the sonic branding iceberg. The present and future is also very much about sonic branding for social media, apps, large scale spaces like stadiums, retail environments, interactive museums and theme parks, as well as urban environments. Some of the most exciting areas we are working in include positional audio soundtracks for VR activations, product sound, and branded spaces. But perhaps the greatest value is emotionally tying the brand together. Every brand is now a multi-platform brand, and music and sound helps people feel the brand, everywhere.

We use various types of proprietary research, including online quant and implicit association to test the impact and effectiveness of the music and sound we create — it’s like copy testing for music and sound. And the benefits of the work are clear and measurable in terms of shifting brand perception and purchase intent.

“Like a film score, we think about scoring the brand experience, everywhere.”

In products and apps, we use sonic branding to make experiences more engaging, heighten usability of products and devices, and decrease learning curves. These mostly take the form of branded UX sounds which we call Brand Navigation Sounds, because they are both functional and emotionalSound is the key to what we call “next level intuitive.” It’s about enhancing the experience and making technology feel SO simple and intuitive to use, and so well integrated into the experience that you might not even notice it. But the sound is there. It’s the emotional engine for all these experiences. Like a film score, we think about scoring the brand experience, everywhere. The music and sound helps guide audiences about what to feel moment to moment, make sense of all these interactions, and tie the brand together across platforms.


Bm: Does sonic branding need to be “music” or can natural sounds (e.g., foley) work?

JB: The entire spectrum of music and sound can be used for sonic branding. Everything from natural sounds to organic, synthetic, and ‘hybrid’ music and sound. It’s all fair game when it comes to creating powerful emotional reactions. But the question is usually whether that particular sound can be ownable or unique. For example, it would be very difficult to own the sound of two hands clapping, but in the case of the Southwest Airlines sonic logo, we spent a long time making the clap sounds distinctive, and of course matching them rhythmically and contextually against the world-famous ‘ding’ of the Southwest seatbelt sign, helped complete the expression and make it memorable.

Bm: How do you approach the process of composition (e.g., is there an optimal length)? How do you attach sonic design to brand DNA?

JB: Once we do our strategic work, we have this amazing Sonic Mood Board workshop, where we match up the brand’s personality attributes against snippets of music and sound to help equate them — to talk about what the brand ‘feels’ like, keeping in mind their target audiences. It’s really quite fascinating and fun for our clients, and incredibly useful in refining our brief. It’s also amazing how this exercise brings everyone together and builds consensus about the brand’s emotional promise. It also really helps people move away from what music they ‘like’ as compared to what feels like the brand.

Then, if we are focused on an identity, we enter a very broad development phase where we focus on creating the Sonic Anthem for the brand. An anthem is a long-form piece of music that is designed to tell the entirety of the brand story in music and sound, and have all the stakeholders in the brand hear themselves in the journey. The anthems are usually 45 seconds to 3 minutes long — whatever length they need to be to tell the story. This then functions as the foundation for the entire sonic identity system for the brand. We then cull down from the anthem the short-form expression — the Sonic Logo — which is a reminder of the Anthem. A memory trigger. The best Sonic Logos are quite short — usually no more than two seconds. And often many other elements of the sonic identity (UX, ambiances, social media sounds, etc.) are either directly derived from or inspired by the Anthem.

We actually try to create as few sounds as possible in an identity system. We want to make the brand experience simple and cohesive.

If we are focused on an experience soundtrack, then we still work from the same strategy, but the focus is on creating or finding music and sound that is on-brand, and highly differentiated from the brand’s competition.

Bm: Electric cars by law need to make an audible sound, which begs the question: How do you brand an auto, both internally (speed increases, gear shifts) and externally (the honk)? What should the likes of Tesla and Apple car be taking into consideration?

JB: This is an example of the fascinating new world we find ourselves in! There are so many technology products, services, and communications platforms that don’t natively have a ‘sound.’ But as human beings we are wired for sound, and we count on it in our daily lives to help us learn, navigate experiences, and connect with the world. 

We encourage brands to think “next level intuitive” when integrating sounds into experiences. Sounds need to remind us of their analog in the physical world — certainly the pitch of an artificial engine sound might go ‘up’ at increased speeds to help pedestrians gauge how fast a car is going as it approaches them, and a horn honk would still have to sound intuitively like a warning. These sonic semiotics are based on our previous experiences and triggering ingrained memories — and, in some cases, our collective unconscious. It’s important that we build on what’s intuitive.

But certainly creating on-brand sound is absolutely vital to building relationships with customers and extending the emotional promise of the brand to new products. Apple or Tesla need to sound distinctly different from each other. Maybe the Apple car’s internal sounds sound more like an extension of their mission to change the world by creating simple, but powerful, impact — while the Tesla car interior sounds would be more ‘transparent’ with quiet ambiances that just make everything feel connected, smart, and warm.

But we also have to be incredibly aware of creating Sonic Trash. That’s what I call sound that is unnecessary (sound for sound’s sake), sound that detracts from the experience or is out-of-sync with other sensory input we might be getting. When we create a sound for any experience, the first thing we do is turn the sound off in that experience to see if we miss it. If not, then it should never have had sound in the first place. It’s not like the world doesn’t have enough sound — we are actually overloaded by Sonic Trash. I think of sound as the cayenne pepper of the experience. A tiny bit goes a long way, and too much spoils the sauce.

Bm: How does sonic branding become memorable? Do you do neurological research to understand which parts of the brain are engaged? Better yet, was Pavlov right?

JB: Our entire lives are scored, moment to moment, with music and sound. Whether we realize it or not, sound is always there changing our mood in an instant, guiding our choices, and making and breaking emotional connections. It’s this amazingly powerful actor in our lives. So much so, that it’s literally impossible to have a great experience where there is bad sound.

“It’s literally impossible to have a great experience where there is bad sound.”

Technically, sound is perceived by the neocortex in our brains, but sound triggers emotions through the limbic brain, which is actually the oldest part of the brain. Much of what we feel as a result is experienced at the subconscious level, which is a lot of what gives sound and music its power to move us. It bypasses rational thought.

The right sound or music at the right time emblazons memories in association with the experiences we have. And hearing those same sounds trigger the same emotions in an instant. That’s why if you hear a song you might associate with high school or an old girlfriend, then the memory is triggered, your mind shoots back through space and time, and you experience that moment all over again as if it just happened.

And certainly — thinking about the music played by ice cream trucks like Mr. Softee or video game soundtracks — sound triggers are associated with reward, which drives behavior. In short, with respect to sound, Pavlov was absolutely correct!

Bm: Can you discuss musical messaging and the creation of a mood or tone? Should my iPhone respond with a tone when I awaken it?

JB: Not everything should make a sound. In fact when people work with us, they are sometimes a little freaked out that we are taking the sound out of everything. We need ample ‘white space’ in brand experiences to make something people will love and, for us, white space is silence or perceived silence.

“We need ample ‘white space’ in brand experiences to make something people will love and, for us, white space is silence or perceived silence.”

Again, we really think about scoring people’s experience like we score film or television. It’s the nuances of the sound — instrumentation, tone, rhythm, harmony, sonic qualities, or tone — that create an underlying mood. We are also very conscious of not adding cognitive load to experiences. If sound is subtle and changes someone’s mood in an instant, then that can create a moment of surprise or delight. And when that moment provides meaning and context as well, then we know we really have something valuable.

We are also really interested in being clear about the story we are telling. Even short form expressions can have a story and, when they do, you can create a narrative that people want to be a part of.

Bm: Here come the chatbots and AI. What does the potential future of sonic branding look like? Should Siri and Alexa use sonics?

JB: Absolutely. Sound, when done right, is the most efficient mode of communicating, connecting, and triggering emotions. For example, a simple confirmation tone would go a long way toward heightening usability and providing just-in-time information. We think first and foremost about what customers want to feel in association with each interaction. Do they want to feel acknowledged? Rewarded? Safe? Welcome? We create sounds and carefully apply them to help trigger those emotions.

We are also working on some very sophisticated concepts now around data sonification. We envision opportunities where extremely complex data sets can be easily understood, with insights gained, simply be assigning different musical or sonic characteristics to different types of information — an information symphony, if you will, that brings simplicity to complex input. We also are working toward sonic user interfaces for the home. If anyone is really going to accept a true connected home experience in their house, then we are going to have to break the tyranny of the screen. I don’t think anyone wants to have to drop everything they are doing to look at any one of a hundred screens in their home, not when they could interact with a system through simple, unobtrusive sounds and commands.

“If anyone is really going to accept a true connected home experience in their house, then we are going to have to break the tyranny of the screen.”

Bm: What are the global and cultural implications of sonic branding? If what plays in Peoria doesn’t work in Beijing, then how do you approach that?

JB: Great question! Making sound culturally relevant is a vital component of successful sonic branding. Just as there are global brands that do well around the world, there are sonic identities that outperform around the world. It all has to do with the brand personality of the company. Disney’s “When you Wish Upon a Star” plays and serves audiences around the world well. But there are global brands in industries like healthcare, consumer products, insurance, and others that must also feel personal and locally relevant.

We’ve solved these problems for brands like Fox International, where the thread (in this case, across 26 countries) was a particular mnemonic hook and style of music, but different regions created hundreds of hyperlocal versions to play in each market. It just takes a little bit of brand management expertise.

Bm: How do you measure the success of your branding efforts?

JB: There are many ways. We have our proprietary SonicPulse methodologies that use a variety of research types to look at the impact and effectiveness of the work we do, while we are developing it. Online quant shows how successful we are in delivering the emotion associated with specific brand attributes in our work, thereby confirming how well we are doing in ‘speaking’ the brand, transforming perceptions about it, and driving purchase intent. We also use implicit association testing to see how successful we are in making sounds that are intuitive and contextually relevant.

We also employ tracking studies to gauge in-market success in increasing attribution for the brand’s messaging in advertising. It’s incredibly gratifying to see brands cut through the clutter of messages customers receive. Additionally, studies can show things like increased linger time in retail just from changing the music and sound. And linger time is directly proportional to same-store sales.

But perhaps our most important measure is seeing how well the work is adopted throughout an organization, and propagated throughout all channels and audiences. When it comes down to it, employees are one of our most important audiences. If we can remind people why they work somewhere and have them ‘feel’ the mission in their own brand, then they are all too excited to share it. It’s hard to put a price on a happy, motivated workforce.

Image sources: Claus Grünstäudl, Caleb George