Marie Anne Leonard, July 11, 2019

Is ‘audio branding’ a necessity in today’s Alexa-powered world?

Sound identity, audio branding, sonic logos and even the ‘mogo’ (don’t.). Whatever you want to call it, we’re seeing more and more brands investigating how they can fit into a voice-activated future, where brand visuals just cannot exist.

Like a lot of businesses, we use Slack to work together, share ideas and chew the fat over the hot topics of the day (Off topic, but how many Fyre Festival memes did you share? Yeah, us too). So, when recent story broke that Mastercard had headed to sonic designers for brand identity work, our first instinct as a visual agency was to fling the ‘shocked face’ emoji around every available channel. But when the keyboard pounding settled and, ironically, all senses were regained, we realised that designers have nothing to fear – it’s actually nothing new.

Songs and music, like stories, are part of the ‘great oral tradition’ ­– created to preserve and pass knowledge and ideas from person to person and generation to generation. When you consider that human language started to develop around 100,000 years ago, but the first Gutenberg printing press only arrived a few hundred years ago, you have a fine argument for the power of audio over visual. In the early days of TV and radio – just a hundred years ago – jingles were big business, cutting through the noise by planting earworms that converted into sales. Particularly impactful at a time when most press advertising was statement led (“Luckies are kind to your throat!”, “You need vitamins!”). Jingles were, and to an extent are, the advertising equivalent of the great oral tradition.

As our Design Director, Charlie Butterfield points out, the sounds he heard as a child still give him a strong emotional response today, “it’s amazing how nostalgic these sounds become. Video games did it so well: PlayStation, Sega, EA, even that horrible high-pitched noise that came out of an Atari.” The names he mentions, of course, all have or had a very strong visual identity too, so combination is the key to success.

Interestingly, success also seems to lie in subtlety. Multi-sensory user experiences are something we now take for granted, “that combination of sound and haptics when you Apple Pay is very reassuring,” says Charlie. “And there are no brands with more visual power than Apple.” WhatsApp also has a killer ‘sonic brand’ – how many times have you checked your phone for a message when someone else’s pinged? And that’s a key element for success, when it exists as a core part of your overall identity. A logo or brand ‘look and feel’ is passive, to be incredibly successful it has to stand out in a unique and meaningful way, draw the eye and work hard over a long period of time. A sonic identity pushes, obtrusively or unobtrusively. The listener has to actively switch it off, like those incredibly annoying keyboard clicks on an iPhone. But still it stays with us. Recognition, earworm, instinct – it becomes part of our sensory memory and forms the way we know the world.

So how do you make it happen?

There are two routes to adopting a more sensory experience and they depend on how established your brand is. Mastercard’s position in the market, let them focus on the sound and work directly with a composer or sound designer over a period of time. This allows them to get under the skin of the brand, learn its history, values and identity in order to compose a piece that will reflect the personality of the business and serve its purpose as a commercial asset.

However, if you are a start-up, you may be looking to create an identity from scratch, which means a collaborative approach between designers of many disciplines (visual, sound, motion graphics, even olfactory) to create a suite of brand assets that perform like an orchestra, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. This stems from a foundational approach to creating a solid identity for your business, translating functional benefits to those which are emotional, societal and, dare we say it, ‘spiritual’.

For want of a better explanation, this process gives your brand a heart, from which we can forge a unique personality into an identity. “Once we have these steps in place we can position your brand anywhere. Offline, Online, Sight, Sound…Smell? Because the framework doesn’t change,“ explains Charlie. “Ultimately the brand needs to make you feel and our job is to understand what that feeling should be and how it should be best delivered.”