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Can you hear me? Sonic branding, audio communications and what marketers should do

Brand + Advertising / 2.16.22 / By Nick Guadagnino

What makes Jaws so terrifying: the shark or the idea of the shark? Aside from a couple obscured shots, we don’t see the beast until an hour and 21 minutes into the film—well past the halfway point. Yet there is plenty that comes before the big reveal that scares viewers. Part of it is the grisly remains of an attack, part of it is the potential for greater carnage, but what bridges it all is a core element in filmmaking: the score. You may not see the shark, but when John Williams’ now-iconic score picks up, with its ominous pulses and hypnotic chugging, you know exactly what’s coming and you know there’s no stopping it.

Now, picture the same scenes that filled you with dread and put “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel over them. Sort of loses its edge, doesn’t it? The same goes for any medium. Movies, television, marketing—you name it. Sound is the center of multi-sensory communication. And for brands, it can be a powerful tool in defining themselves.

A Brief History of Sounds as Entertainment

To talk about the history of sound is a silly endeavor, because that would encompass all of humanity’s time on Earth. Even sound as entertainment is a major undertaking that predates recorded history. So for the sake of time, we’ll jump right to the golden age of radio. (My apologies, Beethoven.) Starting in the early 1920s and lasting for more than 30 years, radio was a mainstay in American households. As the first broadcast medium, people would gather around their home radio each evening to listen to all kinds of programs: from news broadcasts to radio plays, quiz shows to comedies—you name it. It was a powerful medium, where presidents could speak directly to the American public. And though the so-called “panic” following the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast has been more or less debunked, the show still sparked conversations around the power radio can have—and the myth lives on today.

But times change and by the 1950s, the once mighty radio was overtaken by television. A source of visual entertainment now entered the household, but sound still held a grip on the senses, perhaps more so than people may have realized. As viewership skyrocketed, so too did advertising. In 1955, TV ad spending hit the $1 billion mark. By 1977, TV ad revenues reached $7.5 billion. And as the marketplace was filled with new images of products and people, audio remained a key component. Even today, brands are speaking directly to potential customers, asking if they’re in good hands or encouraging them to call if they’re hurt in a car. Say what you want about the quality of these commercials, but one thing is certain: they have a firm grasp on their sonic brand. More to come on that.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s where a new audio-only craze is starting to catch on. It may seem strange that advancing technology (i.e., the internet) gives older modes of communication a new life, but that’s exactly what happened in the case of podcasts. What once was old is born anew—but this time, people can tune in whenever they please. No more waiting for the top of the hour or huddling around the radio set. And as time went on, it’s popularity only grew; as of 2021, there are approximately 850,000 active podcasts available.

One could argue that storytelling is the universal truth that runs through this history. And although many would agree—myself included—there’s another truth that connects it all. And that is the emotional connection we make with sounds. Given the science behind sounds and emotions, what can brands do to tap into this powerful response? This is where sonic branding comes into play.

What is Sonic Branding?

Also known as audio or acoustic branding, sonic branding is exactly that: the sound of your brand. Think of the NBC chimes or Netflix’s one-two punch startup. It’s a short audio segment that embodies the brand just as much as the logo or any other visual element, connecting emotion directly with who you are. And with a defined language of sound, brands enhance their multi-sensory communication and improve brand recall in the process.

Granted, it’s tough to compete with brands like Microsoft that have perfected their sonic branding. But remember: you don’t need to top them. You just need to be true to your brand and what it stands for. So where do you begin?

1. Understand Your Brand

Before you dive into your sound, you need a firm understanding of your brand as a whole. What message are you trying to convey? Who exactly is your target audience? What is your mission? Your vision? Your values? Branding is an arduous process, but a meaningful one when done right. If you put in the legwork up front, you’ll be better off later down the road.

2. Understand Your Audience

Analyzing your target audience is part of the branding process, but to make the most of your sonic brand, you’ll want to focus on a couple key areas. For starters, what are their listening habits? Do certain musicians or podcasts resonate with them more than others? Do they leverage one platform over another? Getting to know what your customers are listening to and how they’re doing it will help you shape the sound of your brand.

3. Deliver Your Value

Now that you have a firm grasp on your brand and your audience, you’re ready to craft your sound. Regardless of the form it comes in, the most important thing is to provide value to your audience. Should you decide to start a podcast, having a catchy jingle at the beginning is great, but if the content that follows is not what your audience wants, they won’t hesitate to check out one of the other 850,000 podcasts out there. By connecting the sound of your brand with the value you provide, your audience will subconsciously connect the two, further driving their emotional response.

It all comes down to understanding your brand. Should you choose to skip that step, well, who knows what will happen.

To learn more about audio communications, or to discuss how DS+CO can showcase your brand through an elevated auditory experience, get in touch with us today.

Author

Nick Guadagnino

Nick Guadagnino is a DS+CO copywriter and expert at finding the right words in every situation.