For most people, brands like Telekom, McDonald’s and Hornbach do more than just conjure up a mental image – they also bring to mind a distinctive sound. But why? It’s because these brands have invested in good sound branding, giving them an unmistakable sound as well as a unique appearance. What is it that makes the way a brand sounds so important? And how can companies develop a unique, integrated sonic identity? In this article, you will learn more about the wide-ranging possibilities and many facets of sound branding, how a heartbeat can be an acoustic calling card and how sound branding can incorporate modern technologies like artificial intelligence.
By Gina Block, GMK Markenberatung.
Five notes are all it takes to identify a Telekom ad. Did simply being reminded of the tune make you hear it in your head? If so, it’s because of a clever concept known as sound branding. But this type of audio marketing involves much more than just jingles and sound logos. There are even scientific studies that demonstrate why every company should consider sound branding one of their top priorities. This research has shown that when companies reinforce their brand identity with tailored music and sounds, customer recall of the brand is improved in 96 per cent of cases.
A sonic mnemonic
In this day and age, giving a brand a distinctive sonic identity is vital. Sound branding connects with consumers’ emotions in a way no other brand code can. Ordinarily, our brains identify important information and filter it heavily. Acoustic signals and memorable tunes can help prevent information from being deemed unimportant and filtered out. They’re easy to remember, are processed differently and more quickly than visual impressions and our brains take note of them as recognisable elements. Humans learn to do this as babies in the womb. There, hearing is one of our strongest senses, allowing us to perceive our surroundings – even if we do so unconsciously. Even before we are born, we can recognise our parents’ voices, react to music and recall acoustic stimuli. Our mother’s heartbeat is the first rhythm that we become familiar with, and the first to soothe us. You could almost say that we get to know our first acoustic brand codes – those belonging to our family and surroundings – in the womb. What’s more, most people find that rhythms mimicking a human pulse lead to feelings of relaxation and well-being even in adulthood. It’s a learned response that can be traced back to hearing the sound of a heartbeat in the womb. As we’ll discover later, Audi makes use of this mechanism in its sound branding.
From “In My Merry Oldsmobile” to radio jingles
Sound branding has a long history. While sounds have only been used to purposely shape brands since roughly the start of the twentieth century, the sound of church bells and fanfares acted as a kind of subconscious acoustic DNA even before then. For example, church bells have continued to represent the institution of the church to the present day, and even use a range of chimes to indicate different purposes – from sounding the hour to announcing the start of religious services.
The first real brand theme song was recorded in 1905, when the car manufacturer Oldsmobile developed “In My Merry Oldsmobile” to represent the brand. In doing so, it became one of the first companies to use sound branding. In 1920, Erik Satie provided a name for another component of sound branding: his “furniture music” presented soundscapes that rejected the forms of musical development expected of compositions at the time. As radio commercials became a fixture of the media landscape, brand designers began to exploit these new possibilities. They produced brand theme songs, jingles, corporate voices and sound logos. Accelerating digitisation ultimately made sound branding indispensable as every digital application created a new acoustic point of contact between brands and their users.
Sound branding goes beyond catchy jingles
There’s more to a brand’s sound than the memorable tunes it uses in its ads. Sound branding includes a number of different design elements, all of which may contribute to a brand’s sonic identity:
Die corporate voice
A corporate voice provides a brand with an added element of audible recognisability. For a long time, the voice of Manfred Lehmann, the actor who dubbed Bruce Willis’s characters for German film releases, was a key element of the DIY store Praktiker’s brand identity. His line “20 Prozent auf alles – außer Tiernahrung” (“20 per cent off everything – other than pet food”) has firmly lodged itself in many consumers’ minds. Equally memorably, Verona Pooth (then known as Verona Feldbusch) promoted a helpline number with her high voice and the words “11880 – da werden Sie geholfen” (“11880 – they’ll help you out”). But corporate voices don’t need to be the voices of famous actors. Though initially completely unknown, the voice assistant Alexa has quickly become a distinctive corporate voice. Today, you could almost consider Alexa’s voice a celebrity – even though the words are voiced not by a real person, but by a self-learning artificial intelligence.
The sound logo
A sound logo is the audio equivalent of a visual logo. More than any other element of sound branding, it represents the brand and embodies the brand’s values and positioning in the market. On top of that, it needs to be immediately recognisable – as a rule, brands have just a few notes and an average of 0.5 to 3 seconds to make an impact. A sound logo can be purely instrumental or purely vocal, or it can be spoken or sung over a melody.
Some examples of very short sound logos that are still universally recognisable are the sounds we hear when we turn on our Apple laptops, start up an Xbox or open Netflix. An example of a longer, sung sound logo is the “yippi-ya-ya-yippie-yippie-yeah” Telekom’s previously mentioned five chimes are also a sound logo.
The Audi Heartbeat is one of the most successful sound logos in the world. It was created in 1994, making it one of the earliest sound logos. While the Heartbeat has evolved over the years, the essence and the message of the sound logo have remained the same. Audi’s Heartbeat is an acoustic expression of its brand values: sportiness, emotion and high quality. As hinted at earlier, Audi makes use of the way the human mind starts to recognise heartbeats and pulse rhythms in the womb and categorises them as important, positive stimuli. The new o2 sound logo developed by comevis works by playing on similar factors. The sound of oxygen bubbles, represented by a synthesiser, aims to position the brand as a friendly, reliable technological companion. And the Yello sound logo is similarly powerful, even leading many people to recognise the brand primarily from the intonation of the word “Yello” in its sound branding.
Jingles often combine a sound logo with a sung or spoken slogan. “Kids and grown-ups love it so, … the happy world of Haribo!” and “Washing machines live longer with Calgon” are examples of this.
Beyond these three key elements, there are three further types of audio that can be included under the umbrella of “corporate music”. In the early days of sound branding, these elements were the most important components of audio marketing. Now, however, they are part of the “old school” of advertising and are used to complement sound logos and similar elements, as a brand theme song or product sound alone would have far too little impact in today’s world.
The brand theme song
Brand theme songs are generally written specifically for the brand and can be seen as an extension of the sound logo. As mentioned earlier in this article, the first brand theme song was created for Oldsmobile in 1905. Another well-known and more recent example is the song “Sail Away”, which the beverage company Beck’s has used as its brand theme song for years – frequently updating it by recording new versions with different artists. Unlike traditional brand theme songs, “Sail Away” was not written specifically for the brand. It was originally penned by Bernie Paul, Todd Canedy and Irmgard Klarmann and first gained renown when it was recorded by the German artist Hans Hartz in 1991. It became truly famous in 1995 as a cover recorded by the singer Joe Cocker. Beck’s used this recording in its adverts for many years from 1995 onwards. A more recent example is the song used to represent the chocolate brand Merci: in addition to hearing it in the adverts, consumers can find a full-length version on Spotify. The song “Merci for being you” was updated and rerecorded in a singer-songwriter style in March 2021.
Soundscapes represent acoustic environments. They are generally used to provide a musical backdrop, for example in advertisements or product videos. They are more likely to use environmental sounds that occur in nature or workplaces than to consist solely of traditional melodies and instruments. A soundscape might use the sounds of a peaceful forest or of waves crashing on the shore – or the sound of a loud machine or a revving engine. As such, soundscapes are often used to indicate specific places or situations through auditory information.
Product and operating sounds
Product and operating sounds are the acoustic stimuli that we repeatedly encounter in connection with a brand – particularly when using the product or service in question. These could be, for example, the sound of a device powering on or feedback sounds encountered when using an app.
The art of sound branding
As exciting and promising as this all sounds, composing an effective and memorable sonic identity is a significant challenge. A lot of different factors go into developing a sonic identity. Above all, the company’s brand codes need to be expressed through its sound branding. Even small decisions – like whether to use major or minor keys, thirds or fifths and diminished or augmented chords, as well as the choice of instruments – can significantly influence the overall tenor of the brand’s sonic identity. The target group, along with their musical tastes and habits, also need to be considered when developing the sound branding. As such, it is clear that if brands want to benefit from an effective acoustic DNA, they need to engage sound branding professionals to develop it.
One of these professionals is Stephan Vincent Nölke, the CEO of the voice and sound branding agency comevis. Now more than ever, he sees a wealth of opportunities to implement sound branding – from traditional sound logos to branded audio elements in podcasts and apps like Clubhouse and Stereo. The latter in particular are increasing the relevance of sound branding, and even help to improve transparency and brand loyalty by enabling real conversations that include voice and sound branding.
About Stephan Vincent Nölke
Stephan Vincent Nölke is one of the most sought-after experts in the field of strategic voice and sound branding, as well as on innovations in digital voice and audio technology. He and his agency comevis stand for innovative sonic solutions, providing well-known clients such as AOK, BVB, Bosch, Deutsche Post DHL, o2, Swisscom, Velux, Volkswagen, Würth, Yello, Zeiss and even the German Federal Government with fitting sonic identities. Stephan Vincent Nölke and his team at comevis take an innovative and forward-looking approach to sound branding – for example by working on digital tools that use AI to take sound branding to the next level. To achieve this, comevis has its own designated sound and research laboratories in addition to standard studios and labs. The agency has received multiple awards for this approach and way of thinking. On top of this, Stephan Vincent Nölke has published books on sound branding, developed the sonic profiling method, teaches at the University of Applied Sciences in Bonn and is on the board of the Association of Supporters of the Department of Media and Technology Management at the University of Cologne (MTM-Verein).
Nölke and comevis are always thinking about the future, integrating innovations such as cloud-based AI tools – which help guide and support audio marketing – into their work: “We are working hard to drive these developments forward within our company, and the C-Cloud tools we have developed in-house were recently awarded an innovation prize. Traditional creative and design skills are being blended with tech-based audio and voice innovations – which really is music to everybody’s ears!” said the sound branding expert in an interview with The Restless CMO.
Sound branding should be a 360-degree experience
As already discussed, brands should take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the wide-ranging field of sound branding. Only when sound branding is conceived of as a 360-degree experience using modular elements can it be applied across all areas and be easily adapted and expanded to suit any situation. This is illustrated by one of comevis’s examples of best practice: the sound branding developed for Yello. From traditional TV and radio ads to the sounds users hear in the app all the way through to the company’s targeted festival ad, Yello’s sonic identity has been fully thought-out and can be added to as necessary using its modular sounds.
What’s more, sound branding isn’t limited to B2C marketing. Despite what many decision makers for brands in the B2B sector may think, it is precisely here that sound branding can make a big difference. While brands focused on the B2C market were the first to take notice of sound branding, all that has changed today. More and more B2B and Mittelstand companies – such as Amprion, Camlog, Velux, Wilo and Oventrop – now benefit from sound branding strategies.
Sound branding means variety
Given all these possibilities, one might wonder why not all brands have fully embraced sound branding. According to Stephan Vincent Nölke, branding agencies sometimes fear that using sound branding will compromise their ability to be creative. But Nölke says that’s not the case: “As sound branding specialists, we design and develop concepts and architectures in which the modularity and functionality of sound design plays a decisive role, allowing it to be implemented across different types of media.” On top of that, the full scope of sound branding needs to be used more effectively. “Far too often, people assume that sound branding consists of a jingle or single piece of music. Nowadays, however, only a modular, corporate sound structure with a comprehensive library of sounds will do. After all, every point of contact has its own sound requirements, and the range of media applications that need to be orchestrated in line with brand identities is growing, not shrinking,” continues Nölke.
The composers behind the sounds
Some of the most famous brand sounds are recognised all around the world – but hardly anyone knows who created them. These are the people behind some of the best-known brand sounds:
- Lance Massey (the Telekom melody)
- Alfred Newman (the 20th Century Fox fanfare)
- Dr Gerhard Lengeling (the iPhone ringtone)
- Edward Reekers (the brand theme song “So schmeckt der Sommer” for the ice-cream brand Langnese)
- Stefan Oberhoff (the original Merci brand theme song)
A new (acoustic) world
Sound branding is everywhere, and it’s here to stay. The field can also be expected to develop and change dynamically in the future. That’s why brands should bid farewell to one-off sound logos and instead integrate their sonic identity across all fields of application. By doing so, they’ll be able to catch – and keep – consumers’ attention, anchoring their brand in customers’ memories with just a few notes.
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