When audiences of a certain age hear slap bass and mouth pops, they can’t help but think,“Hey, Seinfeld’s on.” That Pavlovian response is a prime example of audio branding in action—and what works for a ‘90s sitcom will work for your company, too. Audio branding includes all the sounds consumers hear during brand experiences. It also involves the creation of unique, on-brand sounds for all your audio channels, creating a consistent and immediately recognizable sonic signature.
But audio branding is not just a jingle or a theme song. It’s not just a particular audio mnemonic, or a sonic logo, or an unforgettable text-to-speech (TTS) voice. It’s all these things and more, says Jeanna Isham, founder of Dreamr Productions and Sound in Marketing Learning. In fact, even the descriptor audio is a bit limiting; Isham prefers the term sound branding, because it includes everything your audience hears, recorded and otherwise. We asked Isham what every marketer should know about using sound to grow consumer relationships. Here are a few of her insights.
Examples of Audio Branding: Lessons from the Field
If you booted up a PC during Seinfeld’s heyday, you’ll recognize another textbook example of sound branding: the six-second micropiece that introduces Windows 95. Composer Brian Eno’s tiny tonal symphony is a form of functional sound, the auditory feedback machines produce to tell users that they’re doing something. The click of an onscreen button, a ringtone, and, yes, start-up music are all examples of functional sound—which is part of your brand experience, and should be designed to match.
But the sounds that fuel audio branding aren’t just limited to functional feedback. Here are a few real-world examples of sound branding at work, along with what they have to teach us about the use of sound in marketing.
The MGM Lion’s Roar
Since the studio’s founding, MGM Pictures has stamped its films with a roaring lion. That roar is the MGM bumper’s only soundtrack—sound branding all the way. It immediately identifies the MGM brand and carries an emotional charge for fans. The roar debuted in 1928 with MGM’s first sound feature, White Shadows in the South Seas. That makes the MGM lion an early example of blending sound and image to create an immersive signature. This multisensory experience is perhaps this case’s most important lesson: Sound branding does not exist in a vacuum, and remains a key ingredient to multimedia marketing efforts.
The Aflac Duck’s Quack
While insurance rates and coverage details may vary from one company to another, there isn’t a lot to distinguish between providers—except for branding. So it was a problem that the American Family Life Assurance Company (today’s Aflac) struggled with brand awareness rates of just 6% or 7% in the 1990s. Then it debuted the duck commercials, in which a distinct brand sound—the company’s name as nasal quack—became the centerpiece. By 2020, two decades after introducing the duck, Aflac’s name recognition had soared to more than 90%. The lesson? Even a two-syllable sound can make all the difference, provided it’s memorable, engaging, and unique.
Bol.com’s Branded TTS Voice
Humans automatically associate voice with identity through a process scientists call implicit multisensory association. When you launch an Amazon Alexa skill that sounds like Alexa, then, you’re sharing brand equity with Amazon. Dutch e-commerce leader Bol.com understood this dynamic, so before launching a Google Assistant skill, the company worked with ReadSpeaker AI to craft an all-original text-to-speech (TTS) voice that would instantly identify the brand. That lifelike TTS voice now speaks to Dutch consumers across Google Assistant devices, and with each interaction, the brand relationship grows stronger. The lesson here is clear: Speak in your own voice.
Identifying Audio Channels for Your Sound Branding Output
Consumers experience sound everywhere they go, but as a marketer, you only have access to a handful of channels. You might deploy a sonic identifier on the radio, over speakers at a brick-and-mortar location, or through a smart speaker app. You might introduce voicebots to your mobile experience or create an interactive voice ad on a music streaming service. So which audio touchpoints should you use to connect to audiences?
The answer isn’t so clearcut. The truth is that it depends on where your audience does their listening, and that will differ from one brand to the next. Avoid following the latest trends, unless they clearly apply in your case. Don’t develop a smart speaker app if you don’t have smart speaker content, for instance, and don’t just throw a voicebot onto your site because everyone else is doing so.
Of course, if your buyer persona has an Echo in every room, definitely do look into smart speakers. If your ideal consumer works outside with a traditional radio for company, deploy your sound branding creations on the FM dial. If you’re publishing an app, focus on functional sound. The key is to identify audience preferences and show up where they listen.
Audio Branding: 5 Key Marketing Benefits
Sound branding enhances messaging in lots of ways, from supporting visual content to reaching whole new audiences. Here are some of the top benefits marketers can expect when they start getting serious about audio. Sound branding can:
- Greatly enhance a broader sensory marketing strategy. Sensory marketing engages multiple senses; it is not just visual, not just audible, but both at once (to say nothing of touch, smell, and taste). By adding an audio component to existing visual marketing materials, you decrease audience distraction and create a fuller, more immersive experience—and that makes your brand more welcome and relatable with every interaction.
- Help to diversify your outreach. After the pandemic’s sudden expansion of remote work (and over a year of Zoom calls), many consumers are tired of screens. Approach them through a video streaming ad alone and you may not capture their attention. Audio channels give you a whole new medium through which to share your story—with an added appeal for multitaskers. Anyone can listen to your content while they’re driving, working out, making dinner, or anything else. It’s hands-free, eyes-free engagement.
- Reach new audiences to expand your sphere of influence. Younger generations don’t gather around the TV for the 6 o’clock news. Instead, they may call up NPR on a smart speaker. This goes back to knowing which channels your audience uses; that’s where you want to deploy your sound branding creations. But sound expands audiences in another powerful way: Voice user interfaces improve accessibility for everything from smart-home devices to the internet. By expanding your branding efforts in this developing Internet of Voice, you can improve your own company’s accessibility and diversify your audience.
- Provide limitless opportunities for innovation. The recent accelerating adoption of smart speakers and other voice computing tools is creating a new universe of possibilities for sound-focused marketers. Our kids will use conversational computing in ways we can’t imagine—and this early stage of development makes the field of sonic branding ripe for innovation. Marketers are always finding new ways to connect to their audiences through sound. So can you.
- Avoid unhappy accidents. As long as consumers have ears, they’ll associate certain sounds with your company. If those sounds create an unpleasant experience, you could end up losing brand equity. With purposeful audio identifiers like custom TTS voices and more, you ensure that every experience of your brand is as positive as possible.
Here’s the bottom line:
Consumers are already experiencing your brand through their ears. The only question is how intentional you’re being about that experience.
Audio branding—using sound to build your brand—is the practice of that intentionality.
Jeanna Isham is a sonic branding composer and founder of Dreamr Productions, which she started back in 2009. Her career in music and marketing has been a 20-year journey in the making. She is well versed in the art of traditional music composition as well as being a thought leader, author, and speaker who explores sound in the marketing and advertising industries. Find more resources— including Isham’s podcast, voice-first community events, articles, and online courses for marketers—at www.soundinmarketing.com.