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Audio Branding

Elevating brand storytelling with sound. We examine the evolution of audio branding. Dallas Taylor of podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz reveals the story behind the iconic Netflix sonic identity, Jon Rhuff and Yeosh Bendayan of Push Button Productions explain how jingles are composed, and author Laurence Minsky discusses his book, Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 20 percent on Audio Branding with code BIGEYE20 at KoganPage.com.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS

Jon Ruhff: When you listen to music, if you’re under a scan, your brain is lighting up like a Christmas tree, because it takes all parts of your brain to process music.

Laurence Minsky: Anytime you’re using sound to help build your brand, it’s part of audio branding, and really should be thought through strategically.

David Courtier-Dutton: What you’re always trying to achieve with a sonic logo is people hear it, even in isolation, and immediately all the flood of emotions that they associate with the brand are triggered in the brain.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Thank you for joining us. A growing number of brands are using unique sounds and music, known as sonic identities, to support long-term brand-building. Audio branding can be defined as the use of sound that’s ownable by a brand to reinforce brand attributes. A sonic identity can be as distinctive a brand asset as a visual logo. How many of these can you identify from their sonic identity alone?

[AUDIO]

Adrian Tennant: In this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS, we’re going to revisit three interviews with guests who provided insights into how brands can harness the power of sound to elevate their brand storytelling, and tap into universal emotional responses to music. Laurence Minsky is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Innovation at Columbia College, Chicago, and an expert in sonic identity creation. He’s also the co-author of the book, Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand, which describes in detail the theory and practice of creating entire audio languages for brands. When he joined us in 2020, I asked Larry why brand marketers need to consider audio branding.

Laurence Minsky: I’ll give you one reason why every marketer needs to consider audio branding today. And that is because of the growth of voice assistants. Right now it’s still in its infancy, but do you really want to leave your brand when there’s no picture, no visual, no colors, no fonts, anything of the traditional branding sense representing your brand, and you’re leaving your brand up to Alexa or Siri? In Europe, where audio branding is more advanced, you know, the countries are smaller, there’s more languages. It gets really expensive to have a brand in every country and you want something consistent and you want to be able to convey it consistently. In America, as we continue to diversify our populations, that will become an issue as well. But also, audio branding is a much quicker way of communicating your brand. Sound communicates much faster and sound also helps direct visuals.

Adrian Tennant: Some brands have sounds associated with their products. Think about the roar of a Harley-Davidson’s engine, the pop of a Snapple lid, or the sounds that accompany booting-up an Apple Mac or Windows PC. I asked Larry if he thought these qualify as examples of audio branding.

Laurence Minsky: Yes. Anytime you use sound to help convey an attribute, it’s an audio brand. The snap, a bottle for Snapple to pop. You’ll get reinforced when you’re opening the bottle. So there’s positive reinforcement there, but you could use that in your advertising. You could use that on TV, on radio, on your website, on your voice assistant applications. Anytime you’re using sound to help build your brand, it’s part of audio branding, and really should be thought through strategically.

Adrian Tennant: One US brand that has consistently employed music as part of its brand is United Airlines, which has used George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” since 1987 at an annual licensing cost of $300,000. Larry is based in Chicago, which of course is United’s home base, so I asked him what he thinks about United’s approach.

Laurence Minsky: What I like is Gershwin’s song is very adaptable to multiple situations and you still get it. It still reinforces. And there’s a lot of positive emotion attached to that and movement and energy and things that convey United Airlines. What I don’t like is really, it’s not ownable by United. Anyone can license that song. It’s now gone into the public domain, I believe. And so anyone can use it. It’s better to start with: what do you want to convey? Who are you? And then create something that you could own basically, permanently.

Adrian Tennant: Audio logos become recognizable through repetition. Here’s one that’s heard in over 190 countries:

[AUDIO] 

Adrian Tennant: Dallas Taylor, the host of the popular podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, joined IN CLEAR FOCUS in 2021 and explained the story behind the iconic sound.

Dallas Taylor: Yeah. This is about the Netflix, TA-DUM – that sound. So there’s a lot of ideas and speculation of where this came from. But we noticed that there was never an acknowledgment of actually where it came from. So there was this whole idea of like, “Oh, it must be the end of House of Cards, season two.” There’s this part where Frank Underwood bangs on the desk and he goes “ba-boom” like that. And if you listen to it, you go, “Oh, okay. That sounds a lot like the Netflix logo, pretty fascinating.” So there’s all this speculation online. “Oh, that must be it.” You know, and I can understand if they want to stay away from that or whatnot, but I wanted to get to the bottom of that. So immediately just in my circles wrote the sound designer of House of Cards, like who actually put the sound in. This person was Ren Klyce, very famous in the sound world. And I was like, “Hey, you know, a lot of speculation that the Netflix audio logo is this sound that you made or your team made…” And he immediately wrote back like no time at all, “Nope, not me. Like, you’d think that it sounds like that, but I know exactly who made it, this person Lon Bender, so reach out to him.” So then I went over there and then we talked and, kind of one thing led to another, I eventually kind of put it on Netflix and said, “Hey, you know, we got these people, but we really want Todd Yellin”, who was the client in this. So Todd Yellen was at Netflix, he was the one guiding Lon and Charlie to create some sort of sonic brand and they spent an entire year on it. But that really stalled because when you’re going into a multi-billion dollar company PR and they’re like, “Whoa, who are you?” Like, “What is happening here?” So we had to show our history, that first they were like, “Oh, okay. What are you about?” I think it took us about a year to get Todd. So, the actual episode came together pretty well. However, it just took a long time to get access. But once we had access to Netflix, everyone was super friendly, everyone was really open.

Adrian Tennant: During the interview, Dallas played a clip from that Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast episode that revealed the origins of the Netflix sonic identity. Here is Todd Yellin, VP of Product Innovation at Netflix.

Todd Yellin: First off and arguably most important, it had to be really short. And the reason it had to be short is, as opposed to in a movie theater when you have a captive audience and they’re going to be there and they paid their 10 bucks and they’re going to watch whatever you throw at them. So some of the grander sound idents you can imagine like THX – a great one. It’s really long. The “bom-bom-bom” from 20th Century Fox – long! Even Leo, the Lion was too long because, in our age of click and play, you get to Netflix. You want to be able to click. And there’s no patience. And you want that great experience and you almost want it immediately. So the first thing is it had to be short. Past that I said, I don’t want an electronic sound that is reminiscent of a game platform like Xbox or a computer, like Apple or an operating system, like Microsoft launching. Because we are in the entertainment business. And even though we are the double helix of entertainment and technology coming together, I wanted to make sure that it sounded more cinematic than electronic and computer-ish.

Dallas Taylor: And so another thing that Todd said earlier in the show that really hit home for me. And even Todd didn’t really like sink into this thought. One of the first things he said in the interview, he was like, oh, we just needed something short. And it needed to be like, ‘TA-DUM, it’s Netflix’.” And I was like, it sounds exactly like what you just said. That’s like the bones of what this was. So yeah, it’s just fascinating like that, that’s what they came up with, among multiple versions. They tried all kinds of like random sounds and random ideas and it took them, I think about a year to settle on it.

Adrian Tennant: Staying with iconic sounds, Twenty Thousand Hertz also produced an episode focused on sonic branding which demonstrated some of the most recognizable audio logos in history. In this clip, we hear from Scott Simonelli, CEO of Veritonic, a company that measures the commercial effectiveness of sound.

Scott Simonelli: The big benefit of an audio logo versus a visual logo is that it stays with you after you’ve experienced it. With a visual logo, you might remember what it looks like, but not in the way that you would remember an audio logo, and certainly nobody’s humming or singing a visual logo. As soon as you hear that three-note or four-note sequence, you know exactly where you’ve heard it before. That longevity, that memorability, and that recall is so powerful.

Adrian Tennant: Before sonic identities, jingles were the most commonly-used audio branding elements. A slogan or tagline that’s sung or spoken with or without musical accompaniment, jingles have been around since the advent of commercial radio in the early 1920s. To learn more about their history and how jingles are composed today, I spoke with Jon Ruhff and Yeosh Bendayan of Push Button Productions, based in Orlando. I asked Jon what it is about jingles that make them so memorable.

Jon Ruhff: So we’ve given a lot of presentations on the history of the jingle, the effectiveness of the jingle, and it’s actually a lot of science behind it. So the thing about music in general, when you listen to music, you’ve got parts of your brain that are in charge of your language and in charge of your movement and they’re just very specific parts of the brain. Well, there’s no specific part of the brain that actually helps you take in the music. So you’ve got one part of the brain that helps you work around the melody. You’ve got one part of the brain that helps you work around the rhythm. And you’ve got the other part of the brain that processes the guitar and things like that. So when you listen to music, if you’re under a scan, your brain is lighting up like a Christmas tree, because it takes all parts of your brain to process music. You have no choice but to be present when you’re listening to music. And that’s why you can always remember where you were when you heard your favorite song for the first time because you’re present and aware when you’re listening to music. And so brands have taken advantage of that for decades. So we always say for jingles, it’s the short, repetitive nature of the melody that’s what gets stuck in people’s heads.

Adrian Tennant: Push Button Production composes and arranges jingles for a wide variety of clients. I asked Jon what the process of creating a commercial jingle looks and sounds like.

Jon Ruhff: So most people don’t think in terms of musical genres or styles and things like that or terms. So it’s our job to get that out of the clients who come to us for a jingle. So what we do is, we have a 20, 25-minute brief call where we really get to know the brand. We get to know the target demo, we get to know the personality of everyone involved. And then what we do then is we gather stock music tracks or popular tracks, depending on which way we’re going to go for this particular project. And we send that over to the client for feedback. And what we do is we’re getting out of them, the things that they probably have never considered before, like, you know, “I actually do like the way that acoustic guitar sounds. And I actually never considered how much I hate the banjo. And I know I absolutely do not want banjo in this piece, but I liked the way track five made me feel. I don’t know why, but I liked the way track five made me feel.” So we take all of that feedback and compile it. And that’s where we lay the foundation for the custom music that we bring out for brands.

Yeosh Bendayan: And it’s just like you would with a visual mood board, the goal of all of that upfront research is to start pulling at common threads. And for us it’s like, okay, well the client, like this track, this track and this track, well, let’s look at the beats per minute and let’s look at what keys it’s written in and let’s look at the different instrumentation stacks that they’re using. And then we can sort of say like, Oh, okay, well, Like, this is the general vibe that the focus group or that the client seems to like.

Adrian Tennant: I asked Yeosh if he had any favorite jingle projects from the 500 or so that Push Button has produced.

Yeosh Bendayan: I will say we have worked on a lot of regional and national pieces that are fantastic. For me the best jingles that we’ve done have been for very small businesses like we’ll get businesses who’ll call us and say, “Oh, you know, I need something for the radio. I don’t like what the radio station is doing for me. I just need something,” but we take that and we do something really spectacular and, you know, it’s totally unexpected for them and they feel so pleased with the end product like that for me is the most satisfying. I know John, do you want to reference any specific?

Jon Ruhff: So when we were just getting the company off the ground, a national restaurant chain came to us and said, We’re paying too much for stock music and we want to do a custom piece that we can run for awhile. And so they said, “We just kind of want something with acoustic…”  and blah, blah, blah. So we got to know a lot more about the brand and found out that Genghis Khan was their brand ambassador.

Yeosh Bendayan: I don’t know that I would equate Genghis Khan with a lot of fun. 

Jon Ruhff: Well, they did.

Yeosh Bendayan: Yeah. 

Jon Ruhff: It’s amazing what a couple hundred years can do, you know?

Yeosh Bendayan: Right. Yeah.

Jon Ruhff: Yeah. It’s the hibachi chain of restaurants. So what we did is we were able to incorporate a lot of the sounds and then sizzles that you would experience when you go to the chain. We incorporated that into the music and we were also able to make it aggressive, but something that wouldn’t frighten small children, and they rolled it out and they ran with it for a long, long time. And we won an Addy award with it.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s listen to that.

[AUDIO]

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Dana Cassell: I’m Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as marketing professionals, often inspired by data points reported in consumer research studies. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, through our own research, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers – analyzing their attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. We distill this data into actionable insights to inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – with strategic, cost-efficient media placements. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com.

Adrian Tennant: Each month, in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, the Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in specific areas of marketing. February’s featured book is Brand Storytelling: Put Customers At The Heart Of Your Brand Story by Miri Rodriguez. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 20 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with exclusive promo code BIGEYE20. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free e-book offer. To order your copy of Brand Storytelling, go to KoganPage.com.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. You’re listening to a special episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS on the role sonic identities can play as distinctive brand assets. In his book, Audio Branding, Laurence Minsky highlights Intel as an exemplar. The four notes that make up Intel’s sonic identity have been around for 25 years and while Intel has modified the instrumentation over the years, the four notes have remained the same.

[AUDIO] 

Laurence Minsky: You don’t see Intel chips when you’re buying, but it is a proof point for all the computers you buy with an Intel chip inside it. And that branding has helped Intel make a name and make it a proof point. What other chips are out there? What comes to mind really quickly? And you could see why Intel is so effective because I don’t think a lot of people are going to come up with other chipmakers that give them as much reassurance as an Intel when they hear that little sound.

Adrian Tennant: I asked Larry if he thinks all brands should aim for this level of discipline with their sonic identities.

Laurence Minsky: All branding should be disciplined if you’re doing it right: strategic and thought through. A brand is not solid where you don’t tweak it over time. You know, the best way to maintain a brand is to evolve it slowly, imperceptibly. So it stays up to date and it works in multiple areas, but still conveys the values and the enduring attributes that you want to convey. Good companies that manage their brands, spend a lot of time thinking about it and doing it visually. You should do that the same way with sounds. And do think of it as a long-term investment.

Adrian Tennant: Larry’s co-author for Audio Branding was Colleen Fahey, who leads the US division of the French sonic identity agency, Sixième Son. Larry explained the genesis of their book.

Laurence Minsky: I met with Colleen and she started talking about what she was doing with audio branding. And I learned that it was so much more than just a little logo at the end. It is a whole sound system. And one of the ways in terms of how to use it, even for a package goods or any brand, even for a business brand, about half of Colleen’s agencies, clients, Sixième Son, are business to business firms. And you think of all the different touchpoints, and it’s not just consumer radio spots, which is where jingles end up. But think of the sales meeting, you bring all of your people together. You introduced the CEO with one type of music. You introduced the head of marketing with another type of music. And you come across as disjointed to your employees. And your employees need to understand the brand just as much as your consumers. So you could bring a language to this. It has full flexibility, but still brings back the core notes. So it conveys what they’re about. So you could use it in an internal setting, such as a sales meeting. You could use it as a ringtone. You could use it on the website and voice assistance, all sorts of things. So it’s really a comprehensive solution. And that’s what I learned when I sat down with Colleen. We collaborated on an article for Harvard business review. Where we looked at one of Sixième Son’s clients, and that was the French railroad SNCF, which is one of the most recognizable sounds in Europe is their audio brand. They use it in the stations. They use it on the trains when the doors are opening and closing, they use it in their advertising. You name it, it’s used and it’s highly, highly recognizable. David Gilmore liked it so much he licensed the use of it for one of his songs. Every time that song gets played it reinforces SNCF.

[AUDIO]

Adrian Tennant: Jon Rhuff and Yeosh Bendayan of Push Button Productions described how they approached a sonic identity project for Pyrex.

Jon Ruhff: Well, when they came to us, they had pretty much everything ready to go and we had to sign like a thousand NDAs. Right. It was a new product that was coming out.

Yeosh Bendayan: You know what Pyrex is, right? It’s a baking dish and I appreciate when a brand really loves its products and they do, and they’re wonderful to work with, but I will say they made us sign a whole lot of NDAs for this new product that we thought, man, Pyrex is really getting ready. They’re going to zag. They’re going to go hard. They’re going to start making cars or something that changes the world. Wow. That’s something big is about to happen. and I mean, this was a few years ago, so the product’s out now, but it is that baking dish that, you know, it’s a little deeper. So you can now have an extra layer of lasagna. Like that was it. And so, when we did this audio logo for them …

Jon Ruhff: … Ten-second piece …

Yeosh Bendayan: I mean, look, maybe if you’re a cook, this is a big deal for you. I’m not a cook.

Jon Ruhff: Well, it’s a heritage brand that they haven’t really changed much over the years, you know?

Yeosh Bendayan: It’s a pretty quick ten-second piece and it’s so cool. They’d be like, kind of let us run wild with it. They’d let us do whatever we wanted within the confines of the brand. And we came up with this really cool thing. And now, it’s probably the most referenced thing that we get when people call us and they say, Hey, I heard this piece on your website, or I recognize this piece or whatever. and that’s oftentimes they’ll want to do something in that style because they’re so happy with it.

Adrian Tennant: Here’s the Pyrex identity.

[AUDIO] 

Yeosh Bendayan: We’ve probably written 500 jingles in the time we’ve been in business. Most of America probably knows one of our pieces.

Jon Ruhff: One of our singers was taking a road trip and was driving through Georgia and heard themselves on a Honda commercial. And they’re like, “Oh yeah, I forgot. We were at a Honda commercial in Georgia!”

Yeosh Bendayan: You know, I think the weirdest of all is finding tribute pages on Facebook and like it’s sometimes if we hear a piece is doing really well, we’ll go search for it on YouTube to see if anybody’s uploading and read the comments, which you’re not supposed to do. But it’s just weird. It’s weird whether they love it or they hate it. I get a kick out of it. Just very interesting to see that somebody has invested time in uploading something that you made and then people will comment on it. It’s very strange.

Adrian Tennant: Mobile devices, smart speakers, apps, appliances, and even electric vehicles all present creative opportunities for audio branding. I asked Yeosh how Push Button approaches these kinds of projects.

Yeosh Bendayan: The first thing that we ask and just like, I’m sure most ad agencies will do is why? You know, we’ll get the, “Oh, we’re thinking about running digital ads, for Pandora, Spotify, or we’re thinking about doing something with Alexa, a skill, or whatever” The first question that we typically ask is what are you trying to get the audience to do? What sort of behavior or, what are you trying to drive home by doing it this way? And then working within the confines of the application is often a little challenging for us. I think a lot of people don’t realize the limitations that many audio applications have. When we’re designing a commercial for car stereos, it’s a very different process, especially when you’re talking about mixing than if we’re doing something that’s going to be consumed digitally because we have to assume that people have laptop speakers. Right? They’re not great quality. And the same when you’re talking about Google Home. Like those aren’t necessarily the best speakers, so it can limit some of the things that we try to do. And we have to make sure that the way that those speakers process what we’re doing isn’t flattening the sound and creating a problem, right? Creating something, unintended. So the process it’s not really that different creatively because we’re still ultimately trying to solve a problem. And now it’s just happening on a new platform. It’s more of the technical execution. So it’s the stuff that clients are usually unaware of is all the things that we’re doing on our end creatively, as we’re developing the creative, where are coming up with ideas and going, “Yeah. But is that going to work on this platform?” And particularly, I think the biggest challenge for us is time constraints. like, you know, yesterday we were facing a challenge with a digital pre-roll six second ad. And it’s like, not just us, it’s everybody in advertising is facing this challenge. How do you attack this problem in six seconds? You know? That’s probably the biggest challenge.

Adrian Tennant: I asked Larry Minsky if he had any recommendations for marketers developing their own audio branding.

Laurence Minsky: I would guess the number one “do” is create one and start bringing your sounds together and making them consistent and aligned and working for your brand instead of helping communicate that your brand is disjointed. Do follow a disciplined process. Do it like you would do a visual brand, think it through, do the research, do the hard work upfront. think of it as a system and do think of it long-term. Don’t think of it as a short-term solution. It’s an investment in your brand, just like your colors, your fonts, your logo.

[AUDIO]

Adrian Tennant: If you’ve found this episode about audio branding interesting, you definitely won’t want to miss my upcoming conversation with David Courtier-Dutton, the CEO of the UK-based sonic branding firm, SoundOut. David’s company has developed a powerful brand personality tool that measures the match between a client’s music and their brand. David described why getting the right match is so important.

David Courtier-Dutton: The key to a sonic logo is regardless of what it sounds like, the ultimate goal is to create what we call a Pavlovian Trigger or a signpost to the brand itself. So what you’re always trying to achieve with a Sonic logo is people hear it, even in isolation and immediately all the flood of emotions that they associate with the brand are triggered in the brain. 

Adrian Tennant: I asked David how he defines effectiveness.

David Courtier-Dutton: If you accept the fact that the sonic logo’s core goal in life is to trigger the brand association as a distinctive brand asset, effectiveness actually should be 99 percent defined as how well it does that. Not how well has it done it, but how well intrinsically it is at driving that because we start with appeal. People have to like it. If they like it, then it is easier to recall. So recall a fundamental tenet of effectiveness. If you can’t recall something, you can’t recognize it. It’s just simple logic. If you can’t recognize it, then you can’t attribute it to the brand. So recall, this is really the foundation of her effectiveness. And if you produce something that people find really easy to remember, then that will accelerate your route up to brand attribution and we know there is a very strong correlation between appeal and recall as well. So people really have to like it. Appeal also drives propensity to buy as well. The more you like it, the more likely you are to attribute value to the brand and end up buying it. But, in terms of effectiveness, how quickly, when that goes into the market with a million dollars of marketing budget behind it, will it find brand attribution with a meaningful percentage of consumers.

Adrian Tennant: One of the most effective examples of audio branding is this one: 

[AUDIO]

Adrian Tennant: In addition to being heard perennially during the Super Bowl, the Avocados From Mexico sonic logo has also inspired creators on TikTok to develop some really fun videos that have gone viral, extending the reach and repetition of the brand’s audio identity. You can hear more of my conversation with David Courtier-Dutton of SoundOut about the effectiveness of sonic branding next month.

Adrian Tennant: You’ve been listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS. My thanks to all the contributors to this podcast: Dallas Taylor, host of the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast, Jon Rhuff and Yeosh Bendayan of Push Button Productions, and author Laurence Minsky, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Innovation at Columbia College, Chicago. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can claim a 20 percent discount on a print or electronic version of Larry’s book, Audio Branding by purchasing online at koganpage.com. Use the promo code BIGEYE20 at the checkout. The offer applies to all KoganPage titles. Please consider following IN CLEAR FOCUS wherever you listen to podcasts and if you like what you heard, leave us a review or rating. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye. Thank you for listening and until next week, goodbye.

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