Sonic branding comes of age

Soundlounge Team
March 1, 2019

It’s been a bonanza few weeks for brands announcing the launch of their new sonic identities. Leading the charge has been HSBC followed by Mastercard. (Interesting that it is two Finance companies making the running) According to Marketing Week, Mastercard’s new sound identity took two years and a “big” investment from the brand to achieve this.

Its CMO, Raja Rajamannar, observed that as consumers increasingly use devices such as voice assistants and smart speakers to search the internet, the development of a brand sound has to be a key part of their strategy. However, when he told his teams about the plans to develop sonic branding for Mastercard, he was asked “if he was smoking something”.

Raja Rajamannar hopefully will go down in Mastercard’s history as visionary. (Thinking about it, what is the equivalent for someone who hears the marketing future?) Having changed the visual logo, the marketing team then went on to develop their sound branding ideas. Whilst liking the visual changes, others aren’t so sure about the new sonic logo. In his recent blog column in B&T, Robert Strohefldt casts his eye over Mastercard’s new “sonic branding” and “as much as he loves an ad jingle,” writes it probably wasn’t worth the considerable effort. He doesn’t mince his words: “Seriously? Two bloody years to create a piece of ‘elevator music.’”

In Marketing Week, Andrea Newman, HSBC Global Head of Brand, stated that audio was the “next natural phase” of their work, while admitting it was “very unfamiliar turf, which could have gone horribly wrong.”

HSBC went the celebrity route to develop their sonic logo. Together We Thrive is a bespoke music piece composed by electronic music producer Jean-Michel Jarre, who for you millennials out there, was a big hit in the 70’s and 80s. After a break of 25 years, he is back and continues to periodically release albums.

Jarre was given a relatively free hand in the HSBC campaign. “We were quite loose in the brief, but he got a lot of inspiration from our visuals and his experience of HSBC in the past. We knew when we heard it, he had absolutely cracked the brief,” Newman recalls.

There are seven different edits, created to be relevant to the 66 markets in which HSBC operates. They include titles such as Stadium, which will be used at live events, including its sponsorship of the rugby competition Hong Kong Sevens and In Flight.

Andrea Newman is right when she says, “Music is a very personal thing.” Which makes me wonder how the brand got alignment with so many stakeholders. Ask any decent music supervisor to describe how music is chosen for a TV campaign and they will tell you that there are as many personal tastes in the room as people. Not normally a formula for consensus.

Both Mastercard and HSBC are big projects, a big step forward for the brands and a giant step for sonic branding. Mastercard admit that “we are not wanting to do everything by tomorrow, we want to test it carefully and roll it out, and go deeper.” Newman says she “relied on gut instinct and drew on her 21 years of working at HSBC to work out if the sound was on-brand.” Which makes her either extremely bold or naïve. She admitted that even though they hadn’t done anything like this before, they knew they didn’t know, and wanted to trial and learn as they went along without a list of do’s and don’ts. I am sure that this approach would never be contemplated with a visual rebrand.

The questions that hangs in the air is why didn’t they test the sonic branding elements as they went along? Was it that the team were afraid of being wrong? Or were they afraid of upsetting a world renown artist? HSBC admit that as the second phase goes live reactions will be monitored both internally and externally and are “hoping for positive feedback”. That sounds like a high cost media investment!

Today, savvy brands are integrating music testing into their music strategy before they embark on big global projects. Music/sound testing with a brand’s specific target consumers is an important part of the sonic branding conversation, where the brand tests and evaluates every stage of sonic branding. It also should include competitive analysis and benchmarking.

Developing a sonic logo that resonates with consumers across cultures takes time. The journey to make a sonic identity as recognisable as its visual identity will take at least three years, says Rajamannar. That’s probably conservative. It took Intel at least 5 years for their sonic logo to achieve public recognition and they threw a serious amount of media spend at the project. Buying media time and integrating sonic logos into tactical executions are expensive exercises. This cost far exceeds the fees of the bespoke consumer testing.

Today we can understand and identify exactly what element of music is resonating with a very specific target market and why, plus the technology to run tests and get feedback within 24 hours. And it doesn’t cost a fortune. Learning by trial and error does.

The growth of voice-connected devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home is only going to push the importance of sound up the brand’s marketing agenda. Brands are already having to contend with “Skip ad” where they only have 4 seconds to make an emotional connection with the consumer. And music can do this in a nano second – way faster than any visual stimulation

The good news is that the focus on sonic branding will give brands the opportunity to explore and clearly define, for the first time, the actual elements/sound DNA that make up a brand’s audio personality. These insights will empower them to understand how to create relevance and product differentiation. In the longer term, investment into sonic branding will mean that all parties in the process of finding, creating and using music will be able to write better sound briefs across all platforms that are not dependent on personal taste. The end result? Faster and stronger emotional reactions in people to the brand, with or without visuals.

The bad news is that one wrong note could be the difference between a customer who is happy and engaged with a brand, and one who switches off. If you don’t ask them what turns them on, how are you going to know?

Music supervision history is littered with brands who have found that switching music in the editing suite two days before playout, based on personal taste and intuition, has cost them dearly. Sonic branding is an opportunity for them to rethink how they and their agencies approach sound, how they want to be perceived, what works for them and more to the point, what resonates with their target market and why. The decision making has to go beyond personal taste and “I’ll know it when I hear it” as the benchmarks.