Why Your Brand Needs an Acoustic Identity


We’re all aware of the powerful nature of music in our personal lives. Music instantly conjures up long forgotten memories, and in fact, we can usually complete the melody of any well know tune after hearing only a few notes. As Tolstoy once said: “Music is the shorthand of emotions.” How many brands actually understand and leverage this power in their marketing efforts ?

Acoustic Identity -- Does Your Brand Need One ? (visual courtesy of museum of the gulf coast)

Acoustic Identity -- Does Your Brand Need One ? (visual courtesy of museum of the gulf coast)

I recently met with Susan Aminoff, Managing Director at EliasArts, an acoustic identity and branding agency, to talk about the role of acoustic identity in brand building. Susan made the point that there is now a sizable body of research which validates what we all intuitively know–that an acoustic identity can be a key element in your branding and an important means of reminding consumers of your brand. As Susan noted:

“Not taking advantage of audio from a brand (vs. a commercial) level is a huge lost opportunity, on so many different levels.  Every brand needs an established and distinguishing voice, so that it can engage in dialogue with its consumers.  Sound is the most enduring and sustaining of all our five senses and our brand messaging; it is a powerful transporter of the brand’s emotional values…and it has the ability to unleash the whole brand story — the one that you’re spending millions of dollars telling — in just one note.”

In fact, Martin Lindstrom discusses this phenomenon in some detail in his book “Brand Sense–Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound.” This book and others have documented the growing literature which support the ability of music to powerfully engage humans in a myriad of ways–not the least of which is branding.

Why Acoustic Identity is Becoming More Important to Your Brand

Beyond the science, there are other reasons to be thinking about an acoustic identity for your brand. In particular:

  • Media Fragmentation — Fragmentation means complexity. Complexity makes it even more important that there is a simple, common theme–or “red thread”–to your marketing efforts. Your brand promise is the ultimate red thread, but music can augment it.
  • Print to Digital — Consumers have been moving on-line and until recently, spending less and less time with off line media. This means there are more opportunities to engage them not just visually–but with sound as well.
  • Brand Proliferation — The past decade has seen a blizzard of new products, many of which are not significantly differentiated. Consumers are overwhelmed with sameness. Acoustic identity represents another potential differentiator.

Acoustic Identity — Benefit Focused or Attributed Meaning ?

Just to be clear. I’m not just talking about the use of music in advertising. I’m talking about using an acoustic element as an important part of your brand signature–everywhere the consumer touches it. There are at least two schools of thought on creating an acoustic identity for your brand.

  1. Benefit Focused — The most obvious approach is to create an acoustic identity which directly supports your brand promise. The idea is to architect the sound or music so that consumers naturally associate it with your brands benefit–even without knowing the product or service. A great example of this is the piano music scored for the UBS “You and Us” TV spots. The music is peaceful, serene and intimate. It directly supports the brand’s promise to understand you and your needs so you have more confidence in your financial decisions. The brand demonstrates it’s value proposition through advisors 1:1 listening (intimacy) and client’s confidence (peace of mind). The music evokes these feelings even when heard without the UBS context.
  2. Attributed Meaning — The second approach is to create a sound, or leverage an existing one, into an acoustic identity that you attribute meaning to over time via use in your brand building activities. An example of this would be the NBC 3-note ding-ding-ding, which used to signify “station break.” NBC took this instantly identifiable station break ID, and turned it into a real acoustic identity with many variations and themes so that it’s now instantly understood as “NBC.” Other examples include Intel Inside and United Airlines well known use of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Each has come to represent its respective brand through repeated and consistent usage.

Acoustic Identity — Creative or Brand Driven ?

This naturally leads to the question: who or what drives the need for an acoustic identity? Historically, it’s often been driven by the creative process and the development of new advertising. Think of the United Airlines example above. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but I’d argue that it’s way too narrow.

Given the vast array of potential customer touchpoints in most business models, and the almost limitless ways to utilize sound and music, an acoustic identity should be a key marketing driven activity–and not relegated to the agency creatives. So, who drives it ? Whoever is leading the brand.

Music has the proven ability to remind us of a brand, differentiate it versus competition, appeal to our deepest emotions, and encourage us to engage with and ultimately purchase it.  Given the media fragmentation, print to digital trend,and brand proliferation,  it’s more important than ever that Marketers begin to think of their branding not just in terms of a visual and logo, but an acoustic identity as well.

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12 Responses to Why Your Brand Needs an Acoustic Identity

  1. manila58 says:

    Musicians understand the concept of the sound brand, since it’s what makes each one of them unique. No one sounds quite like Barbara Streisand, Glenn Miller’s band, or Green Day. The idea isn’t new: As Randall Beard points out, NBC is associated with ding-ding-ding; there was also “Avon calling” and Alka-Seltzer’s “plop-plop-fizz-fizz.” All were very much a product of radio as the predominant medium. Branding today is much more visual, so a sound brand such as the Nokia mobile phone ringtone seems to have a significant impact. What I find notable is that successful sound brands evolved organically. Johnny Cash wasn’t recognizable overnight. And, once established, a sound brand can evolve, like Star Trek’s “Space…the final frontier.”

    • beardrs says:

      Louie — Thanks for the comment. In addition to your points, I’d add the following. First, many brands put huge emphasis on visual identity and logo, but little to none on acoustic identity. Given the sameness of brands in many categories, this is an opportunity to differentiate your brand. Second, as more and more publishing moves on-line, there will be increased opportunities in the use of sound that didn’t exist in the old print world. This will expand the possibilities for an acoustic identity. I think this is an interesting area of marketing that has often been overlooked.
      Randall

  2. R. Johnson says:

    Very informative post. I think many brands have benefited from their acoustic identitity but I have a sense that if every brand had a sound component, the result would be very noisy and the good ones would not stand out. I think sound can be intrusive if overdone.

    • beardrs says:

      Thanks for the comment. I think there are so few brands that have leveraged acoustic identity in a smart and effective way that the state you describe is far, far in the future. Better to get on board now with an identity that works and differentiate your brand while the others aren’t paying sufficient attention. Thanks again for the comment.
      Randall

    • manila58 says:

      I don’t think all brands would benefit from an acoustic identity. The crunch of a Washington apple may not make the cut, for example. The most memorable ones also evolved over time — I’m not sure NBC thought the triple tones would become synonymous with the network. And there really are more acoustic identities than we realize or can name, we just don’t recognize them as such.

      • beardrs says:

        Perhaps all brands wouldn’t benefit from an acoustic identity, but I think a lot more brands should try. As I mentioned in the post, and acoustic identity can be something that evolves over time as the NBC chimes did, or can be designed to help communicate the brand promise. It’s also possible to develop a weak acoustic identity (your washington apple example) which doesn’t work well at all–just as there is good and bad advertising. For me, the challenge is to first decide that your brand needs one, and then have the discipline and skill to develop and effective and meaningful acoustic identity.
        Randall

  3. Mark Prus says:

    Great article Randall! Could not agree more! For many years I led the Tums Antacid business and had to fight my Management to keep the distinctive “tum-ta-tum-tum” acoustic identity that had been established in over 15 years of consistent advertising. Every time I got a new boss, he would argue that we needed “to shake it up a bit” and take out the acoustic signature. Needless to say, I was usually successful because the signature is still in the advertising.

    • beardrs says:

      Hi Mark — Great example that everyone should know well. Just thinking about the Tums brand, I can hear the acoustic signature you describe–which makes the point. Once established, a great acoustic identity can live virtually forever, if well managed. Of course, the challenge is always how to keep them fresh and up to date without walking away from what works. Sometimes, companies are their brands own worst enemy for exactly the reason you describe–brand and marketing people live with the brand day in, day out and often tire of key equities long before consumers do. Sticking to what works but evolving it over time is a critical management task.
      Randall

  4. Randall, thanks for a valuable intro to “acoustic identity.” A couple of related thoughts. If we regard senses as channels that are mixed in people’s brains, it makes sense to engage on several channels to create a more durable impression, presupposing that the channels resonate. Companies that neglect auditory cues about their identity are leaving money on the table. Likewise for (I realize this is much harder but would be relevant in certain cases) touch and smell.

    We are in the verge of pervasive adoption of consumer-generated video, and people are increasingly accustomed to multimedia engagement. In the U.S., youTube is the #2 search engine. When a Google exec told me that, I took it as a signal for a major shift: brands increasingly risk feeling colorless if they neglect other senses.

    Thanks again.

    • beardrs says:

      Hi Chris — Thanks for reading the blog and providing your perspective. I’m with you that great brands should be engaging all of the senses, and not just relying on one or two to communicate their brand promise. In fact, when I worked at P&G, they had pretty conclusive evidence that audio+visual was more effective than either audio or video alone. Clearly, video has become huge on the web and will continue to grow in new and important ways–and Marketers are still figuring out just how to use these most effectively. I think the challenge for Marketers is to think about their brand across all of the senses and define unique and distinctive identities in those that are most relevant to their benefit. And, almost certainly as you point out this will deliver a more durable impression.
      Randall

  5. Hi Randall, great post. Reflecting your notes and the discussion in the comment section key from my experience is a brand comunicates every day and as a matter of fact is creating an acoustic identity, or as Prof Watzlawick famous quote points it out “There is no no-communication”. The only question is: do you build your acoustic identity in a professional manner or will you miss this opportunity to create Sound Branding elements and reinforce your brand impact.
    Karlheinz
    For more information on Sound Branding: http://www.soundbrandingblog.com

    • beardrs says:

      Karlheinz–Great point. I always say every brand has a strategy whether they know it or not, and as you say, the same is true for acoustic identity. I look forward to reading more of you blog posts on this very interesting and important topic. Randall

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