Why Does Sonic Branding Matter?
Netflix, HBO, and Microsoft all have taken advantage of it to win hearts and minds - but what exactly is the importance of sonic branding?
I spent the last week before the holidays on recovery from a wisdom tooth extraction - maybe fortuitous given *gestures everything going in the world* - but a pleasant, almost forced relaxation after a whirlwind of a year.
The days were mostly blurry, lost in a sea of new yogurt brands and a tantalizing rotation of painkillers, but I did what most people do when they’re physically comatose: end up watching a lot of streaming.
The constant “TU-DUM” of the Netflix stream was my reaffirmation of mortality.
It brought me back to something I’ve wanted to explore for a while - how that sound from Netflix relates back to branding.
A fun first fact I learned was that some of these sounds actually have names!
TUDUM is Netflix’s in-house name for the “startup” sound when the logo appears on the screen. As a fun tribute, Netflix apparently held a global fan event called “TUDUM,” all about unleashing new trainers and announcements.
But that’s not all! Other streaming platforms also seem to name their sound:
Hulu calls its somewhat robotic startup sound the “Sonic ID”
HBO calls its static reveal sound the “Static Angel”
Disney Plus has an eerie sound from its star known internally as the “Snap”
Even individual logos aside, soundscapes have become almost synonymous with brands.
With the sound off, you can still hear the smooth, symphonic take on “When You Wish Upon a Star” that has accompanied Disney movies for decades.
Back in September, I first learned about the idea of sound-based logos from a tweet by agency exec Michael Miraflor about the Netflix sound above.
It was the first time I had heard that word: Sonic Branding.
Not only did it start to give a name to sounds that we had essentially married into our subconscious over the years, but the more I dived into it the more I learned that it was an actual branch of marketing - complete with strategies, agencies, and opportunities for brands.
So I wanted to explore Michael’s question above: how can more brands start to think about their sonic identity? Why does sonic identity even matter?
Moreover, why is it especially important now?
What is Sonic Branding?
One of my favorite definitions of sonic branding comes from an Adweek piece from way back in 2013 around the concept: the process of “distilling a multimillion-dollar brand into a few seconds of sound”. Typically, the outcome of sonic branding is a good sound or short jingle that can imprint a brand into your head - a “sonic logo,” if you will.
But to realize the importance of sonic branding first means just looking at its ubiquity around us.
Think about every time you’ve started or rebooted a computer in your life. You’ve probably heard one of many unique chimes from Microsoft (Shout out, Windows 95, and Windows XP) or Apple (I’m an Apple fanboy, but none of them are that great, let’s honest) that distinguishes their computer from others. Every time you sit down to watch a show, start a game or hear a ring tone on the phone, you hear some product of sonic branding.
Like anything in marketing, it seems simple from the outset but naturally complex in the actual process - Brian Ono created almost 84 different tunes for the iconic Windows 95 logo, quite a task for something that was *checks notes* about three seconds long.
But why does any of this matter? Why should brands jump into the sonic realm?
First, it’s not uncommon for humans to be extremely sensitive to sound. Some of our first cerebral connections are made with objects and sounds - birds chirping, cars driving on the road, parents yelling, and more. Our fight and flight uses sound triggers constantly. The sensitivity is even apparent in science: it only takes around 0.146 seconds for human beings to react to sound.
How do you consistently capture that 0.146 seconds without wasting time?
When I first wrote about jingles last July, I became fascinated by the science behind why certain songs get stuck in our heads more than others and came up with a short framework to distinguish famous jingles from forgotten ones: MES.
Memory - Is this jingle likely to get stuck in your head?
Emotion - Is this jingle likely to form an association with an emotion?
Social Exposure - Is this jingle likely to get social exposure?
With sonic branding, thinking through the MES framework has a similar benefit with very different implications.
The amount of memory you need to store a song is very different from the simple inhalation of sound. With songs that get stuck in your head, they tend to have very familiar melodic contours, simple lyrics, and a short length - generally 15 or 30 seconds. This is common with many of history’s best jingles.
Sonic logos or sounds also need to get stuck in your head to the amount where you recognize them - but because they’re so short, they’re essentially competing with every other sound you hear.
You might not talk to someone while they’re listening to a jingle - but you’ll certainly talk to them while they’re starting up a computer or buzzing up their fourth straight hour of Netflix.
Sonic logos are usually short enough to exist in your echoic memory - a subset of memory that relates to remembering sounds. Echoic memory is usually fairly automatic - if you talk to someone and understand them, it’s because your echoic memory has retained your understanding of words over time.
Because of this, sonic branding needs more than just a catchy sound to capture hearts and minds - it needs to rely on the other two parts of MES very heavily: emotional connection and exposure.
If you think about the best sonic logos out there - HBO, Netflix, Intel, Xbox, and others - they’re usually predicated on a pretty solid benefit. If you’re watching television, you’re getting top-notch entertainment. If you’re playing Xbox, maybe you’re motivated by the larger vision of a game. If you’re logging onto a computer, you’re ready to work on something important. Like jingles, it’s not enough for a sound to exist. It should stir in you a carnal desire for something greater than just the spark of your echocic memroy.
That’s also where exposure comes in. We recognize the logos above because we see them so often in our day-to-day activities.
Exposure is tougher compared to jingles. People don’t walk down the street shouting “TU-DUM” or whistling the Intel logo while at work - exposure almost has to come from direct interaction with the product.
It might seem like sonic logos are built for particular companies - computer startups, entertainment companies, and telecom companies. But is there more to sonic branding for the average brand?
Is There a Future in Sonic Branding?
When I think of the future of sonic branding expanding beyond what we know, I think of three large trends:
The burgeoning field of social audio solutions
The increasing popularity of smart speakers
The demand for unique in-person experiences
Social audio apps have seen a bit of a lull from the very apparent slowness of growth with Clubhouse. Still, with a growing portfolio of options from Spotify to Meta also introducing app rooms, there is a unique opportunity that sonic branding here has from an advertising perspective for brands. People may not want to hear long advertisements in a social audio space in the same way they’re comfortable doing so on podcasts (where fast-forwarding is available and encouraged). In this case, something like a recurring sonic logo has a huge opportunity to make strides.
Smart speakers are another exciting opportunity - imagining that you could turn on lightbulbs, microwaves, and thermostats with an Alexa gives essential household appliances suddenly the same sonic wield as an Apple. Any home appliance company can now think through whether they want a different identity with the functioning device. Checking the weather or a sports score could also come with its own sonic introduction - the equivalent of the NBC chimes for basic information.
In-person experiences can also benefit from many sonic branding tweaks - custom soundscapes in public places, sound-based activities, and even sounds accompanied by simple things like receiving orders at a restaurant or changes in happy hour prices. The corollary to Instagrammable experiences are experiences that keep you engaged and willing to promote after they’re done. Take a look even at this Burger King campaign about showing Ronald McDonald in the mirror if someone says “canceled clown” - points to the much larger potential of where audio-based experiences are headed.
The agency Massive Music has another compelling proposition: the mobility sector.
One of the biggest changes for audio and day-to-day brand and product experience will happen in the mobility sector. With the gradual disappearance of the combustion engine, we're re-inventing the sound of mobility all together. The best of both worlds would be to focus on safety whilst keeping it ownable for your brand. But how do you do that? I bet there are a few Research and Development people at Harley Davidson HQ already pondering over that.
Sure, this is still likely not an immediate priority for most brands, and the easiest shortcut may be to tack on an identifiable sound at the end of a youtube video. But sonic branding is still a growing concept in the marketing world, and there is still lots of time to be early in adopting any part of a sonic identity: a logo, a simple transaction sound, or more. Agencies like Massive Music are among many agencies now curious about sound.
But if you’re exhausted by the proposition of brands doing more, rethink what you’ve already consumed.
The TU-DUM will always be there at the end of a long day to remind you that you can only go so far for an escape, but marketing is always there.
If you’re interested in more about audio-based branding, check out this neat seminar put together by Shez Mehra, who runs a sonic shop and is definitely worth a twitter follow if you want to learn more about audio-based campaigns.
Is there a sound or sonic branding you love that was missed here? Shoot me a note on twitter @kushaanshah!