Have you ever started dancing at the sight of an ad poster? Of course not. Because visuals don’t get to us like music does.

Yet sound is still heavily underutilized as an asset and brands are still reluctant when it comes to it. Some see it as unnecessary while others pull strongly ahead of their competition by harnessing sound. The race for branded attention has reached a visual standstill, with more and more brands looking and feeling the same if not outright copying each other. In a market dominated by tactical visual reiteration, it is the strategy of sound that will make the difference. It’s only a matter of how late you’ll be to the…recital.

Brandingmag deep-dived into the sonic space along with the head of strategy and research from amp, one of the world’s leading sound branding agencies. Bjorn Thorleifsson has a background in psychology, sound-engineering, and consumer behavior, and studied at Goldsmiths, University of London, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen, co-director of the MSc in Music, Mind, and Brain and one of the leading authorities on the subject of how music affects us all.

Brandingmag: Please define sonic branding as you would to a potential client. Can a brand have a ‘sonic identity’?
Bjorn Thorleifsson: Yes, brands can, and should have sonic identities. When we approach clients, or when they approach us, we outline the importance of having a flexible sonic identity, one that can be translated across digital channels and make a measurable impact across audible brand touchpoints. Over 75% of young adults connect to a brand through music (PHMG, 2019), and both owned and recognizable sound creates authenticity for a brand, which nearly 86% of consumers value when choosing to support a brand. When diving into the creation of a sonic identity, we utilize AI music analysis tools to hone in on specific emotions and genres. Memorability is key for every brand, and this can be achieved with a well-thought-out sonic strategy, ideally implemented as early as possible, and used consistently to build association and recognition.

Bm: What does sound deliver, in terms of brand communication, that visuals and words do not?
BT: The power of sound can be seen very clearly in explicit processing, with humans only being able to ingest 40 bits per second. However, implicit processing in regard to sound allows us to compute and process 11,000,000 bits in one second, proving the lasting effect and impact of tactfully placed music, especially from a branding perspective. Sound has the remarkable capacity to regulate listeners’ emotions, which can in turn tie into many other cognitive processes, such as memory formation. Emotion has been shown to be one of the primary motivations for engaging with music. The emotional power, combined with the speed of sound processing, gives music a unique ability to target consumers in a way that differs from other brand communication methods. 

Bm: How do audio assets stack up against other brand assets for today’s brands? Has sound become more important?
BT: Sound has become more important in recent years, which is unsurprising considering the huge advancement in digital and sound technologies, as well as the increase in music streaming, podcast listening, voice assistant interaction, and the rise of digital smart speakers. It is also interesting to see that this advancement in technology and increased engagement has impacted marketers, and led to changes in what form of advertising they invest in. Digital audio was shown to be the fastest-growing digital advertising segment in 2021, showing a huge increase of 57% from the previous year (IAB, 2022). Other brand assets, such as visuals, naturally still hold great importance when it comes to advertising campaigns, but we are happy to say that many brands are finally recognizing the importance of sound, and it’s paying off.

Bm: Can sound be more powerful than visuals, in some cases? Is it possible for a person to make stronger associations with a brand’s sound(s) compared to a brand’s visuals? Can you give some examples?
BT: Sound can be more powerful than visuals in some cases when it is used well. Consider a film without any musical score. While silence can target the viewers’ attention, there are very few films that do not utilize music’s power. The music used to accompany visual material can completely transform the viewers’ experience, set the mood, and target the emotions of the viewer in a way that visuals cannot. Music and sound give us the ability to target the subconscious mind of the consumers, also known as System-1 processing, which is the near-instantaneous process that contributes to decision-making, that happens both intuitively and with little effort. Although visual logos and branding also build strong associations between consumers, they target different processes when it comes to decision-making. To further underpin the effectiveness of sonic assets when compared to other brand assets, it was found in an Ipsos study (‘Power of You’, Ipsos, 2020) that sonic cues are the most effective distinctive assets when it comes to gaining branded attention (bringing the brand to mind), surpassing all visual assets and even celebrity endorsements. Specifically, ads featuring sonic brand cues were 8.53X more likely to be high performing when it came to branded attention, and any audio at all was 3.44X more likely to perform high on the same metric. Despite this, sonic cues across the board are still heavily underutilized, but we can see clearly that there is often a missed opportunity with audio, considering its power, when compared to other brand assets.

“The emotional power, combined with the speed of sound processing, gives music a unique ability to target consumers in a way that differs from other brand communication methods. “

Bm: Can the return on investment for sonic branding be evaluated and tracked? In what ways can brands justify the investment and determine its success (or failure)?
BT: Yes, the return on investment for sonic branding can be evaluated and tracked. Still, a large-scale study investigating the relationship between global sonic branding strategy and return on investment is yet to be conducted. We were really intrigued to explore this, and we found a positive correlation between sonic strategy and brand value in this year’s Best Audio Brands report. Those that performed higher in the index because of a more robust sonic strategy were more likely to be high-valued brands. This correlation was observed explicitly in the Technology and Electronics sectors. For example, Apple and Nintendo are two brands that reap the benefits of investment in sonic strategy through employing sound across consumer touchpoints to generate a highly immersive user experience. 

Another example – the difference in terms of sonic strategy between MasterCard and VISA is quite clear. MasterCard has employed a holistic sonic strategy and has gained huge benefits from its 360-approach to sound. The sonic DNA is not only employed across payment touchpoints but extends into all aspects of brand communication, such as the music that Mastercard uses. VISA, on the other hand, has a single payment sound, which is not part of a greater sonic identity. We can see this difference translate into sonic performance from analyzing both brands positioning on the index; with Mastercard at number 1 and VISA falling behind at the 39th position.

Bm: How does audio branding influence human behavior? What are the effects of audio assets on System 1 and System 2? And what does that mean for brands?
BT: I touched on this a little earlier, but music strongly influences System-1 processing; the system operates automatically and quickly, with little to no effort or voluntary control. This particularly applies to instances where music acts as a background feature, secondary to the core brand message. In these cases, it is primarily experienced via the consumer’s subconscious. So, while System 2, which is the processing involved in slower, analytical thinking (where reason and logic play a part), is the method of processing that can influence our short-term behavioral responses, the emotional brand associations built through music harnessing System-1 processing leads to long-term brand preferences. For brands, this means that there is a very prominent ability to target subconscious processing and ultimately build emotional connection and brand association through music. 

Bm: What advice can you give to marketers and other brand people trying to convince their leadership of the importance and immediacy of sonic branding?
BT: My key piece of advice is that sonic branding should be seriously thought about soon, considering the rise of platforms where brands are not only seen but can also be heard. Establishing a well-recognized sonic identity is a marathon, not a sprint. With our transition into web 3.0 and the metaverse, it is more important than ever for brands to recognize the importance of sound, allowing marketers to harness music’s impact on our emotions in such immersive experiences. The development of an effective sonic strategy will allow consumers to create a link between virtual worlds and physical brand experiences. The use of sound will be key in creating a more immersive experience, while also boosting brand recognition and building brand equity. 

Bm: What are the first 3 steps that a brand should take when considering the implementation of sonic assets? 
BT: Firstly, brands should consider their competitors, what others are doing in the sonic space, and how they can employ a sonic strategy that is unique and fitting to their brand. 

Brands should also consider what they want to achieve with the implementation of sonic assets; and create an action plan that creates sounds that fit well with brand personality and the overall brand communication style.

And finally, brands must employ testing methodologies when considering the implementation of sonic assets. While the process of producing sonic assets is primarily creative, when married with reliable testing techniques, the sonic assets transform from something that leadership thinks is nice to listen to, to something that can have a natural effect on consumers and impact their perception of the brand. 

Cover image source: Mingyue H