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  Sonic Branding Finds its Voice   Sonic Branding Finds its Voice  Kim Barnet  
         
 
Sonic Branding Finds its Voice Although not a new phenomenon, sonic branding is becoming an increasingly strong vehicle for conveying a memorable message to targeted consumers. As traditional media grows into non-traditional sectors, today’s savvy-eared consumer is accessible anywhere. From non-lyrical sound bites to catchy snippets of tunes, these sonic brands take advantage of one of the brain’s most powerful memory senses – sound.
 
What exactly is sonic branding? In short, and as defined by Managing Partner Bill Nygren of Boom Sonic Branding (Boom), “A sonic brand is the aural equivalent of the graphic logo.” In other words, “sonic brands are sound identities that penetrate the emotional and logical mind. A hybrid of voice, sound design and original music, the sonic brand works by harnessing music's power to trigger an emotional response.” As is seen with the rapid development of online advertising, although limited as recent industry trends have shown, the development of technology and web or wireless-based communications has allowed companies to break the sound barrier and reach the consumer anywhere. From the shop floor to the cell phone to the television set, the consumer is within earshot of a booming brand.

As Lisa Lamb, Head of Sonic Branding for Interbrand, pointed out, sonic branding allows “increased brand recognition across a variety of platforms, since people will hear things where they are not necessarily looking. One does not have to listen to hear, whereas one does need to be looking in order to see.” Sound, particularly music, has a strong memory trigger that heightens the brain’s ability to recall. That’s why, according to Boom, a sonic brand delivers “a share of mind that visual branding alone cannot achieve.”

It is for this very reason that not only are traditional industries such as retail using sonic branding, but also why industries such as tobacco have been restricted from the use of sonic branding in the US. In 1970, the US Congress voted to outlaw the use of sound to sell tobacco, hence the reason why no one in America has heard a radio or television ad for tobacco since January 1, 1971. (Although certain restrictions do apply for print media, tobacco advertising is not outlawed outright.)

Sonic branding has no doubt been a part of our lives for decades, whether it is the jingle from an ice cream truck or a theme song for television shows such as the nightly news or the Simpsons. But sonic branding in the multimedia world has transcended the visual image by either complementing it through sound or creating a new aural brand all together. One of the most recognized sonic brands is Intel’s musical string of bleeps. Lamb noted that although many people may not be able to draw the Intel logo or even know what a Pentium chip is, they are more than likely able to be able to sing the soundbite or recognize the sound as that belonging to Intel.

This brings to question what makes a sonic brand effective? When working with a client, the Boom team look “for emotional touch points within the target market.” Based on the desired clientele, they create “a blend of sounds and mix some retro sound triggers that cater to that market, while making sure the client message is interwoven within that message.” Sonic brands are inherently scalable. Therefore, “they can be manipulated to intensify consumer/brand interactions, from a website mouse-over to broadcast messages and beyond.” However, as Nygren noted, the challenge is to ensure that the sound is harmonious with the product or brand.

The objective is to create a “memory trigger, intrinsically linking a product name, service or benefit with a pleasant memory.” Starbucks is a successful example of making its service and product an experience with a particular feeling across an international level. Through an agreement with Hear Music in 1999, Starbucks uses compilations of soothing jazzy tunes to entice the customer not only to stay for a cup of coffee, but also to identify a level of sophistication with the company name. Boom has come across many retail companies going beyond the Starbucks approach by having music specifically composed for the feel they are looking to portray. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have been successful in this field, using “fantastic composition with a message so intrinsically woven through it that, although they change it regularly, they hit spot on.”

Aside from creating an emotional response or building a mood around an image, sonic brands also simply create familiarity, whether it is the Windows’ ethereal opening or Nokia’s over-played ring rap or AOL’s email announcement “you’ve got mail,” that relate to a certain function or activity. Dave Chaimson, Director of Marketing for Sonic Foundry, which develops digital media and Internet software tools, says that regardless of intended impact, the ultimate goal is to provide the consumer with a “new dimension setting a certain tone or mood” that offers an “aided awareness” to the product or service in question.

 
Much like the beauty of music, sound as a whole transcends language and cultural barriers, allowing easier delivery and reception of the message. This is complemented by the fact that the modern IT world is increasingly border agnostic. Therefore, whether you are Chinese, German or American, if you are a businessperson with access to modern communications you are certain to share commonly recognizable sonic brands with international peers.

Yet despite the world trend toward borderless business, certain challenges to sonic branding remain. The obvious being access to communication and modern technology. A successful sonic brand is one that is identifiable through traditional and non-traditional mediums, but if the latter is not available or lacks the necessary bandwidth then the extent of reach for the sonic brand is limited. What’s more, as Lamb states, a company has to be careful “not to pollute the sound,” or take it to a point where it is not complementary to an already existing brand.

Ultimately, there is the matter of keeping the sonic brand in harmony with the overall brand. As illustrated by Nygren, if you click on a website for an insurance company and are met with a lot of flash and bleeps, it does not make sense for the product. There are also numerous examples of institutional sounds, such as a Beatles song being used in commercials, bringing to question whether the sound is being transferred to the brand at all. Hence the need for companies to look into creating original sounds that convey their own message.

The point is to avoid creating disconnects. According to Nygren, in order for such an avoidance to happen “new media needs to evolve to the point where traditional media is today in terms of presentation.” In addition, as Chaimson has experienced through the application of Sonic Foundry’s software, “the more these tools are pushed into the hands of creative people the more apt they are to use them in presentation.”

The average eardrum out there may not be consciously aware that it is being bombarded by sonic brands daily. This is in large part because reception of aural presentations is subliminal in nature, and therefore, the message is processed on an emotional rather than rational level. Just as traditional media is looking toward non-traditional media for branding, and vice versa, aural and visual branding are becoming increasingly complementary. Striking the right equilibrium is the trick. Striking the right eardrum is the magic.    

[22-Oct-2001]

 
  
  

Kim Barnet worked as a consultant in risk management at Claydon Gescher Associates in Beijing for the past four years. She recently moved to New York and is currently seeking new job opportunities.

     
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