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Applying sound to strategically increase brand performance

Noel Framus
Applying sound to strategically increase brand performance Noel Framus
Ba-da-da-da-da! McDonald's is loving it. We've been hearing this brand signature for only a few years, but in that time, the fast-food giant has built a unique branding platform, so to speak, with five simple notes that identify the brand in nearly every language, medium and touchpoint.

Impressive, isn't it? Perhaps even more notable is what those notes are worth in dollars and sense. What would they fetch if, let's say, McDonald's were to auction them off? Millions? Tens of millions? More? Undoubtedly it's worth a lot more than it cost to create. Every organisation that communicates with sound -- in advertising, online, digital, retail spaces, call centres, events, products, etc. -- has something to glean from McDonald's and others like them. Budgets are tight and resources are scarce, but a few simple principles can yield immediate dividends today and lay the groundwork for a powerful future.

We're fortunate to have been involved with a number of large-scale sonic identity systems for global brands and have seen (heard?) music and sound create significant long-term brand power. That effect comes by design and this starts with a few questions.

1. What's your return on sound?
You have a budget for advertising, marketing, events, music on hold -- all those moments in which people hear the brand. Is this money an investment, or a noisy expense?

In 2006, the top 100 U.S. advertisers each spent between $150 million and $2 billion on sound-enabled media (TV, radio, internet), and millions more in unmeasured media (events, call centres, etc.). Each of those brands invested heavily enough in music and sound that they should expect a little mileage -- even a hint of long-term brand value -- in return. We expect that from our visual identity and integrated branding efforts and we should expect it from the spending we put into sound. Quick example: a recent Barclaycard commercial featuring the Bellamy Brothers' Let Your Love Flow. It's a brilliant, whimsical commercial with nice song that fits the spot dead-on.

As an investment, though, the returns would be questionable as it can't grow sustainable mindshare. First, it's borrowed equity. Barclaycard doesn't own that music license outright. It will perform its temporary campaign role and eventually disappear. Second, the company isn't leveraging this music extensively across other touchpoints. While they do score points for encouraging people to buy the music from their website, it should scale across the company's brandscape -- into other interactive touchpoints, contactless payments/POP, call centres, etc. These lack any identifiable sonic coherence, despite a strong visual brand coherence.

The costs for deploying this audio? Millions. And the return? Let's not go there. Of course nobody intentionally wants these unknowns, but that's what many companies are paying for without measuring the impact of the spend. Contrast that with the iconic British Airways composition (the Flower Duet from Delibes' opera Lakme), which is instantly recognisable in whole or in part and has spoken for the brand for decades across a variety of customer touchpoints.

Back to McDonald's: the sing-songy 'I'm Lovin' It' signature is recognised by 93 percent of the people exposed to it. This is music and sound that's globally identifiable and continues to work hard as a brand investment.

'We're not advertising more,' said Larry Light, McDonald's global marketing officer recently after its launch. 'What we have increased substantially is the effectiveness of the advertising. When you increase relevance, it sticks in people's minds.'

2. Do you sound as unique as you are?
Great brands inspire us. They solve problems, they make meaning. Many of us like to believe we're out to change the world in one way or another. Yet most brands sound surprisingly alike: generically upbeat, harmlessly acceptable and usually forgettable.

Pick up the phone and dial your company's support line. Listen to the music your company's playing at its sales, customer or partner events. Check out your online product demos. Pay attention to your retail music. Are your brand's intentions made audible? Back to that issue of investment versus expense: T-mobile and Nokia are prime examples of sound being able to identify a company and articulate its values in a way that's unique, unmistakable, fully ownable and worth protecting.

Most of us know the sound of Intel -- dun dun dun dun! -- but do we really have an idea of what a microprocessor even does? Intel invests billions each year on its Intel Inside program because it helps make this conceptually fuzzy ingredient brand relevant to everyday consumers. Today, that brand sound communicates an understood meaning that few other ingredient brands can match. Chalk it up to a plan that began long ago and is likely to stick around for a while.

3. What's your emotional identity?
We're naturally wired for sound. Daniel Levitin's book, This is Your Brain on Music, links what we hear with how we feel: 'Our neuroimaging studies show amygdala activation to music ... repetition, when done skilfully by a master composer, is emotionally satisfying to our brains, and makes the listening experience as pleasurable as it is.'

Heady stuff, this connection between neuroscience and behaviour. But Oliver Sacks makes the case for music in the simplest possible terms in his book, Musicophelia: 'Music doesn't represent any tangible, earthly reality. It represents things of the heart, feelings which are beyond description, beyond any experience one has had. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical ... is conveyed very powerfully in music.'

This may be more about transformation than about 'branding'. Music, and the larger practice of emotional design, can tap into a brand's inherent personality and illuminate it in ways that rational concerns can't. Features, pricing and benefits are great, but Apple's start-up sound, the Yahoo yodel and the THX signature reach us on a much deeper level -- they're emotional beacons for the brand, and they play a key role in what we feel about (and buy from) these companies. Compare these to the Southwest Airlines 'ding', or Honda's recent 'knock knock' guy -- two successful but emotionally empty mnemonics. They identify a brand on television, but lack the emotional weight necessary to communicate personality.

This opportunity lives in the offline moments as well. Whether you're hearing a Harley rolling down the street, popping open a can of Pringle's chips or brushing to the harmonic hum of a Sonicare toothbrush, you're having high-touch interactions with a brand. These small moments are valuable channels for communicating those sometimes holy, sacred and wonderful brand intentions.

4. How elastic is your brand?
We're aware of the shifting brandscape. Brands live everywhere, digital media is ubiquitous and the future won’t get any simpler. 

Just as with visual identity program, a strong sonic identity is also more of an elastic system than a collection of catchy sonic logos -- it's designed with enough musical flexibility to address multiple brands, sub-brands, constituencies, market groups and regions. The most effective sonic identities are built to scale for a variety of touchpoints and contexts -- from television to software to retail environments, for example -- without any costly or time-consuming retrofitting. Organisations that approach sound with intention today will have a system in place for tomorrow -- one that amplifies the emotional power of the brand without the costly and time-consuming logistical challenges presented by changes in technology or cultural nuance -- because they will have anticipated them in advance.

Moving forward
It's easy to assume these principles apply mostly to advertising on television and radio. But true sustainability comes from a system, a platform, from which the rest of an organisation's brand experiences grow. As a brand's sonic identity system seeds, emerges and strengthens itself, so grows the positive association people have with the brand.

Internal brand organisations and their external partners carry the burden for creating and communicating the essence of a brand. With some initial assessments, careful planning and steady vision, they can help their organisations create the emotional impact and economic value that McDonald's and others like them have accomplished. It need not take long, but the benefits can indeed last for ages.

Noel Franus is managing director of Sonic ID.

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