The growing phenomenon of sonic branding

A picture may paint a thousand words, but today’s brands not only need to grab your eyeballs, they also need to grab your ears as well. The Drum explores the growing phenomenon of sonic mnemonics, kicked off by Intel’s “bong, bong, bong, bong”, and asks whether sound could be the new vision.

image by Josh Bancroft

A picture may paint a thousand words, but today’s brands not only need to grab your eyeballs, they also need to grab your ears as well. The Drum explores the growing phenomenon of sonic mnemonics, kicked off by Intel’s “bong, bong, bong, bong”, and asks whether sound could be the new vision.We are all familiar with hummable ditties and jingles that triumphantly announce their stated products presence with a rhythmic banging on our eardrums, but the once kitschy art of penning a rhyming melody is giving way to a new more scientific approach. Today soundsmiths tap into vast vaults of noise, each sound catalogued by the emotional string it pulls, to cook up custom medleys that sing to us directly in the language of notes and chords. But is this growing acoustic presence melodious, or just plain odious?Sonic branding is the business of associating particular products and emotions, such as hunger, fear and need, with specific tunes, a marketing trick whose strength lies in the brain’s uncanny ability to memorise and extrapolate snippets of sound.Keen to take advantage of this inherent hardwiring a new breed of musician is now seeking to isolate the insanity inducing qualities of brainwashing ditties such as Aqua’s Barbie Girl and fashion it into a sonic bullet that can penetrate directly into a person’s subconscious with incessantly looping brand chatter that can subjugate free will.EMOTIONThis knowledge has spawned a multi million pound industry in which advertisers seek to distil the emotion and characteristics of a given product into audible form, using a form of audio alchemy that can transform discordant notes into music for the ears of unwitting listeners.Tagging a particular product with a specific symphony is nothing new of course. Various brands of religion have long understood the value of sound for recruitment and indoctrinating their flocks, utilising rhythmic hymns and incessant chanting to manufacture desired emotions from their captive adherents. Nor were nation states slow to appreciate the rousing traits of music when our national anthems were penned, each custom built to stir populations into a patriotic fervour.After all, convincing people to endanger their lives in the name of a cause that may be of no immediate or direct consequence to that individual is perhaps the sharpest evidence of the pull of music’s hard to resist allure.Today’s sonic brands may be more modest in scale but their profusion throughout society ensures their behaviour inducing qualities are no less dramatic. Indeed it is often those subtle tunes we do not consciously hear or which become part of the background static which stand greatest chance of penetrating our ears and infiltrating our minds. It is a process familiar to most mobile phone users who must agonise over selecting a ringtone that best fits the user’s personality.The familiar refrain of Nokia's trademark klaxon for instance also illustrates a risk that brand promoters must bridge, familiarity can breed contempt.As anyone familiar with Dom Joly's obnoxious loudmouth caricature bellowing “HELLO” over an outsize phone will attest, this can ultimately do more harm to a brand than good.The first and last acts of a stint before the computer have become defined by an electronic fanfare that pipes forth, enticing our ears to prick up at the over familiar notes of compliance emanating from your speakers.LEGACY BLEEPSWithdraw cash from a hole in the wall and a series of artificial whirrs and blips convince the user that the machine is capably processing its task. A lot of these are ‘legacy bleeps’ put in place by engineers, such as those in barcoded tills, without recourse to design but now designers are beginning to look again at the innocuous sounds which accompany our everyday actions in the pursuit of elevating daily chores into something a little more palatable.In the commercial arena however one musical ident has generated more sound waves than any other; the Walter Werzowa composed ‘four bongs’, of Intel chip fame.The piece has become the most played piece of music ever having bonged an estimated billion times since the notes first vibrated into our conscious (and subconscious) minds back in 1994.Key to any successful sonic brand is the use of associative sounds which are instantly recognisable to any TV viewer and in this Werzowa hit upon the vocal rhythm of the chipmakers tagline ‘Intel inside’ by penning a melody that echoed the spoken syllables of the catchphrase... thus encouraging any unwitting eavesdropper to repeat the words to the beat. It is a baton which has been picked up in numerous campaigns since, notably Cutting Edge Commercial’s work for McDonald’s with the pervasive “I’m lovin it” campaign and's infectious ditty.The Drum sounded out Mike Scott, lead composer at Spike (, for a few soundbites, chiefly just what distinguishes a good jingle from a bad one? Scott advises: “What is good and what is bad? Music is highly emotive and highly personal. A good idea and a good brief will give good music. As a composer I’m bound to say music is better at stirring emotion than pictures, however the best outcome would be a seamless synergy of both.”Explaining the “bloody difficult” process of fashioning scraps of sound into a harmonious accoutrement, Scott stresses: “It’s the same for ad makers. You are always striving to create something fresh. Always challenge yourself - which may mean challenging your client.”Radium Audio eschews such sound banks and instead sends audio engineers to record ambient sound in the field. It is an approach Radium’s head, Andrew Diey, is immensely proud of and allows for the creation of bespoke melodies.Diey informed The Drum: “The basic notion of a sonic ident is that it just repeats the same melodic line. It doesn’t say anything about the brand, it doesn’t say anything about its history or heritage, all it does is repeat the mnemonic that people associate with the brand. Now we feel that’s quite a soulless way of doing things, there’s a lot more potential that you can get out of the brand which is why we’ve been creating sonic branding experiences.SINGAPORE”We’ve recently rebranded Singapore through advertising and the way it communicates. What we’ve done is create 10 musical identities with visuals attached to them each of which has a sound story which reflects parts of Singaporean heritage. We’ve produced a 'cinema for the ears' by bringing together all the different attributes of Singapore in a very traditional musical way. Food, the environment, sport, culture and music are all paired to a short cinematic piece and to us that’s a lot richer than just doing, ‘dum, da dum dum dum.’”A discordant note is struck however by the use of ‘subliminal’ branding allegedly introduced to some pop song lyrics. A chart topping Pharrell Williams 2005 hit for instance, 'Can I Have It Like That' featuring Gwen Stefani, incorporated a chorus which apparently echoed Burger King’s advertising slogan, ‘Have it Your Way.’Perhaps silence really is golden. At any rate the developing field of sonic branding is a process which strikes a cord with Scott who believes our ears really are the quickest route to our hearts he says: “As Hans Christian Anderson said so eloquently – “Where words fail, music speaks”.”

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