Columns / Design Details

Seen and Heard

The audience is listening. So what do your brand designs sound like?

Sara   Breselor
The first time the world heard a singing commercial was Christmas Eve, 1926. It was a four-part harmony for General Mills titled “Have You Tried Wheaties?,” and it was an instant smash. Since then, ad tunes, slogans and jingles have become ubiquitous, part of the collective memory of entire generations. As Dr. Cornelius Ringe, co-founder of the Audio Branding Academy in Berlin, points out, “There are no brands without sound emissions.”

Despite this wild proliferation, however, most companies don’t allocate nearly as much time, attention or financial resources to how their brand sounds as they do to how it looks. The development of audio branding has thus been less about building an industry than reining one in. Imagine audio branders as sheriffs taming a lawless frontier or, perhaps more accurately, sommeliers of sound bringing refinement to a cheap-beer level of sophistication. “We do not talk about adding more sound,” Ringe says, “but cleaning up cacophony, reducing noise nuisance and focusing on consciously designed brand sound.” Think of the NBC chimes—sometimes you hear pared-down xylophone tones, sometimes a string-heavy orchestration and sometimes a series of jazzy harmonics, but the sounds are instantly recognizable no matter what. NBC’s chimes are a classic example of audio branding, and they come from a strategic approach to sound that has little to do with jingles or campaign songs.

Consider, in contrast, a much more common scenario: A brand’s onscreen logo is accompanied by nothing more than the dwindling notes of an arbitrary song licensed for a one-off campaign. Audio branding professionals regard this as the equivalent of throwing together a visual identity with clip art and Comic Sans. “Many companies might say, ‘We have no use for audio branding,’ even though they’re broadcasting all sorts of sounds that are helping to shape their audience’s opinion of them,” says Brian Rupp, co-founder of Portland, Oregon–based audio agency Brand Timbre. He and others who share his niche in the ever-more-specialized marketing universe see this as a giant mistake.

“Sound is our primary warning sense,” explains Julian Treasure, chairman of British firm The Sound Agency. That gives audio a powerful capacity to affect our perceptions and emotions. Rupp adds, “Sound resonates on a pre-language level, requiring no translation, no analysis, no thinking. We just feel it.” Colleen Fahey, U.S. managing director of Sixième Son, an audio branding agency based in France, says the field has developed more quickly in Europe than in the United States for this very reason. “The European Union can be a big marketplace for a brand, but unlike the United States, it doesn’t have a unifying language,” she says. “Music is a language that’s universally understood. It can say that you’re ‘effervescent and fun’ or ‘rigorous and precise,’ and you don’t have to speak Spanish or Danish, or even know how to read.” What’s more, copyrighted brand sounds can earn royalties. “If you valued Intel today, there would be a line item for the Intel audio logo,” says Steven Keller, CEO of Nashville, Tennessee–based agency iV, “and it would no doubt be worth millions.”

To use sound haphazardly is to squander this vast potential, particularly since most media nowadays is consumed on devices with speakers—even newspaper and magazine ads can have an audio component. Not only does a comprehensive audio brand include sonic logos like NBC’s, but it also encompasses on-hold music, the sounds that products make when you power them on and press their buttons, audio that plays in retail spaces, vocal styles in voiceovers, and audio used in sales videos and trade expo booths. In a successful audio identity, all these work as a cohesive whole to reflect a clearly defined aspect of a brand, which requires companies to develop a set of standards akin to a visual style guide. If this system of sounds is well designed, people should be able to identify the brand with their eyes closed, solely from nonverbal cues.

Ringe’s favorite example of effective sonic branding is Skype. “It’s the biggest telephone company in the world, and it’s the only one with a branded ringback tone,” he says. But the true genius of the audio brand is its perceptual continuity. Skype’s visual identity is based on rounded, stylized cloudlike shapes. There are no hard edges. And when you think about all the sounds of Skype—the “bloop-bloop” you hear when a contact comes online, the under-water-bubbly ring tone, the cheerful “blup-ching!” when you hang up—they all seem to sound… round. Ringe explains that this is a strategic application of what’s known as the bouba/kiki effect. As early as 1929, psychologists observed that different sounds were consistently associated with different types of visual images. Using the nonsense words bouba and kiki, researchers found that the “hard” consonants of kiki were linked to pointy shapes, whereas the “softer” consonants and rounded vowels of bouba were associated with curvy, rounded imagery. Skype’s sounds are all bouba-ish, so the brand sounds the way it looks. Together, the sound and the imagery feel both friendly and futuristic, which is a very specific and carefully chosen brand position: Skype is the service for connecting with loved ones over a high-tech medium. Ringe notes that he’s never seen a Skype commercial, but he can recognize Skype’s “sound cosmos” almost immediately. “In movies or TV series, you can find very effective brand placements of Skype without seeing any visual logo,” Ringe says, noting that characters on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory often use Skype.

This is a serious and somewhat sneaky advantage in an age of information overload. People quickly learn to ignore the media around them, but, Ringe says, “We cannot stop hearing. Our brains are always scanning our auditory environment.” Fahey points out, “Audiences, when they’re ‘watching’ TV, are often looking at iPads and mobile phones, working out, or playing with a cat. Your best hope of being recognized is through audio.” And the payoff is even bigger when the audience is watching attentively, because the interconnection of two or more senses has an impact greater than the sum of its parts, a sensory phenomenon known as super-additivity. “It’s not one plus one equals two,” Treasure says. “If you add two senses together you can get increases in impact of ten times or more. That’s why it’s very important to consider all the senses holistically and, in particular, sight and sound together.”

As discussions of superadditivity and bouba/kiki experiments suggest, scientific research on human perception of sound plays a big role in audio branding. Fahey describes one study that found some sounds made toffee taste sweeter and others made it taste more bitter and another study in which shoppers at a wine display bought German wines when German music played and French wines when French music played, but were unaware that music had influenced their choice. Digging into journals and white papers is part of an audio brander’s job, but so is fluency in brand management, strategy, creative design, intellectual property issues, music theory and musicology. Most professionals in the industry today don’t share a specific educational background—Ringe says that the Berlin University of the Arts was the first to offer a formal academic program in audio branding, which was launched in 2006—so they adapt and refine their skills according to the demands of the evolving discipline.

Increasingly, this includes understanding acoustic ecology, the study of how humans relate to the sounds in their environments. The next frontier of audio branding is designing the sonic identity of physical spaces such as offices and retail locations, where, Treasure says, companies typically default to “simply playing music, which is using other people’s brands, when they could be creating branded sounds of their own.” Those sounds can significantly alter behavior. The Sound Agency recently designed a soundscape to reduce suicide attempts at a particular location (Treasure could not divulge the name of the client). “We reviewed 75 scientific papers about different types of sound and their effect on psychoses of various kinds,” Treasure says. Then they created a playlist that encourages a “short-term uplift” to subliminally nudge people away from catastrophic impulses.

More and more, this attention to acoustic ecology will involve not only the audio that is broadcast within physical spaces, but also the way those spaces are constructed. “The 360-degree soundscape is influenced by acoustics,” Rupp says. Acoustics—how sound is affected by the geometry of a space and the blocking, reflection and absorption qualities of the space’s surfaces—influence how people feel in a space and therefore how they act, so acoustics are directly related to how well a given space fulfills the role intended for it. “People are recognizing that they can actually design the aural experience,” Rupp says. He notes the unfortunate number of cool-looking, but oppressively noisy restaurants as evidence of the importance of considering the aural experience of a space from the very start.

The answer to the question of how a nonspecialist should approach audio branding is: Don’t—bring in an expert. But do encourage your clients to consider sound when discussing identity design. “If you want to show you’re innovative and strategic, bring an audio branding partner’s thinking into new business pitches,” Fahey says. It will open up opportunities for future projects and position you on the cutting edge of a field that has moved from composing breakfast-cereal jingles to building spaces that echo and filter sounds in just the right way to ever-so-subtly make you feel like trying some Wheaties. ca

Sara Breselor ( is a San Francisco–based writer and the editor of the IDEO Labs website. She’s a regular contributor to Wired and the Harper’s Weekly Review, and her writing has also appeared in Idiom magazine, Salon and Slate.


Create an Account
Sign In

Sign In