Sonic branding in a multi-platform world

Sonic branding in a multi-platform world

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‘Stop, hey, what’s that sound…?’

Could you be ignoring the sound of branding success?

From a consumer—or even branding—perspective, Intel, Coca-Cola and HBO might seem to have little in common—aside from their instant recognizability.

But what unites them is that, for each, a key part of that recognizability has been built on sound—on the use of audio cues to communicate their brand and to connect and engage with customers.

Intel’s ‘Bong’

HBO’s static buzz.

Coke’s clinking ice cubes and satisfied ‘Aah’

… you get the picture (or rather the sound).

Most recently, they’ve been joined by Mastercard. As part of a branding overhaul that also saw it drop the words from its logo, the payments giant has created its own ‘sonic brand’: a series of sounds they hope customers globally will instantly associate with Mastercard, and become as familiar as its red and yellow circles.

“So what?” you might say.

Well it’s worth paying attention. Because Mastercard’s decision is a further sign that—as society, technology and consumer habits change—your ‘sound’ could soon become every bit as central to creating a strong brand identity as any logo or slogan.

But before looking at some of the reasons why, let’s back up a bit…


Mastercard created a sonic branding architecture to amplify its resonance in multi-platform commerce.

Sonic branding explained

Just what is sonic branding?

Well in many ways, it’s nothing new. The Intel bong will be familiar to anyone who’s bought a PC since the mid-nineties, while something like 21st Century Fox’s fanfare –every note of which screams cinematic spectacle – has been around for the better part of 75 years.

You see, at its core, sonic-branding (a.k.a. audio or acoustic branding) is simply the use of sounds to brand a product or service.

And the rationale for it is pretty clear. Sounds connect with people at a deep, emotional level. Think of the emotions a piece of music can stir. Or the reassurance of a familiar voice on the phone.

So too with products—studies have shown that sounds can help create positive emotions towards brands and enhance recognition and differentiation.

Those emotional connections are the very essence of marketing. You want people to feel something about your brand. So it makes sense that sound could be highly effective—not only in enriching existing engagement methods, but even in driving an entire business strategy.

And it’s that personal, emotional connection that also differentiates a true sonic brand from, say, a simple jingle: The sounds connect with, and are fully integrated into— and across— the brand. Mastercard is a good example. They’ve created a simple base melody, and made that the common anchor point for a much broader sonic branding strategy, one that’s integrated into every way (and every place) customers engage with Mastercard.

So, versions of the melody will play at points of sale, in commercials or when customers are put on hold. And there will be different variations for different moods. There’s even different versions for each of Mastercard’s various international markets that incorporate local musical styles and instruments.


The drivers of the sonic branding boom

“Well that’s as maybe…, but why now? What’s behind this sonic boom?”

Well, there are various reasons, and for at least one, it might be best to ask Alexa…

>> The rise of voice commerce

Voice commerce is exploding. Already, just under half of online adults use voice technology in some way. Ownership of Amazon Alexa and Google Home smart devices among Americans aged 12+ has hit 23% – three times what it was in 2017.

These aren’t just interesting stats—they directly impact how customers buy products, and what brands need to do to attract and retain them.

Traditional methods of purchasing and brand exposure have tended to be dominated by visual triggers – whether browsing products in-store or online, or watching a commercial on TV.

But with voice assisted technologies, that visual aspect—and the opportunity to use it to connect with a customer—can disappear entirely.

So as brands look for ways to connect with customers in this new world, they’re turning (back) to sound.

Again, Mastercard is a case in point: If a customer buys a product via Alexa, they might not go near their credit card, let alone near a screen on which a Mastercard logo could be displayed. But if Alexa were to play the Mastercard ‘melody’ to confirm a transaction had been completed, then bingo! That connection – that association of a successful purchase with the Mastercard brand – might again be made.

The question, then, is that if this is the marketplace, would your branding make the grade?

Hey Alexa, do brands need a sonic signature to succeed?

>> Indirect and friction-free

Another consequence of the new ‘multi-platform’ digital retail environment—an environment of which voice-commerce is just one part—is that the ‘consumer journey’ is becoming increasingly characterized by two factors—factors that might, at first sight, appear to be opposites.

First, is that the customer’s purchasing journey – and so the route through which they connect with a brand—has become less ‘linear’.

Increasingly, consumers may arrive at a product purchase by various different routes—via intermediaries, across different platforms, as part of a personalized, curated service and so on: each of which may offer more or (more often) less opportunity for ‘traditional’ uses of brand messaging.

The second—and related—factor is the drive towards ‘frictionless’ transactions (Amazon voice purchases being the obvious example). Less friction means fewer ‘engagement points’ between a customer’s need for a product and their final purchase decreases. And again, fewer engagement points means fewer opportunities for a brand to connect with the consumer.

There is a clear unifying aspect here: brands are, in effect, losing some of the control—the opportunities for influence—that they have traditionally had over the consumer. In a world of fewer ‘contact points’, extracting the maximum value from each becomes not just important, it becomes essential.

When eyes are distracted, melody can leave a lasting impression.

>> The battle for attention

The final reason is perhaps the most basic. As consumers are bombarded with ever more sensory stimuli, as multi-tasking and ‘second-screening’ become the new normal, and as attention spans shorten, the battle for that precious resource—a customer’s attention—becomes ever harder.

This is marketing 1-0-1: in a crowded space, you need something that makes your brand stand out and connect with the customer. In a world of visual saturation and – as we’ve seen – fewer ‘contact points’, could how your brand sounds make all the difference?

Can your brand rise above all of the noise?


‘… Everybody look what’s going down.’

When you combine all of these factors, it quickly becomes clear that simply ‘carrying on as before’ from a branding perspective is becoming less and less viable.

Those who fail to adapt to these new realities risk getting left behind. Instead, the businesses that thrive will be those able to develop fluid, adaptable brands that can connect across platforms and that engage with customers in new, creative ways. In some sectors, the race may already almost be lost. In others, the time to act is now. – JS


Are you ready to make sonic waves? Contact us to learn more about Hunt Adkins’ approach in developing distinctive sonic brand signatures, including the new Great Clips audio logo launched with our work for Great Clips’ latest national brand campaign.

Cover Photo: Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash