Sonic Branding: Designing and Hiring Your Perfect Brand Voice
Now is the time for every brand, big and small, to take their knowledge of sonic branding to the next level, and hone their unique sound.
With the emergence of countless new sonic channels, from smart speakers to podcasts, the ‘Era of Voice’ is firmly upon us, and your brand’s audiences are listening. Smart speakers can be found in nearly half of all American homes, audiobooks are the fastest growing sector of publishing, and over one-third of Americans aged 25-54 listen to podcasts monthly.
In fact, voice-based platforms and messages communicated through audio are predicted to become more and more desirable for audiences, especially those looking to reduce visual stimulation in their day to day lives. For brands, this means that crafting a distinct and identifiable sonic identity is as essential as harboring a unique visual identity.
In this article, we’ll help you uncover your brand voice by getting back in touch with your brand origins, values, and aspirations. Then, we’ll emphasize the vocal aspect of sonic branding, explore how you can uncover your literal brand voice via a few different exercises, and walk you through hiring and directing a voice actor to bring it to life.
This article will shed light on the following subjects:
- What is sonic branding?
- Enhancing your brand voice
- Bringing your brand voice to life in 3 steps
- Example: How a brand voice comes to life
- Sonic Brand Building Exercise 1: Connect to your brand voice
- Sonic Brand Building Exercise 2: Describing your brand sound
- How these big brands brought their brand voice to life
- Hiring voice over for your sonic brand
- Voice apps and sonic branding channels
What is Sonic Branding?
Your sonic brand is the unique soundscape that drives home the tone and personality of your brand voice. This collection of sounds can be of a musical quality, embodied by the voice of a particular individual or synthetic vocalization, or both.
A sonic brand can be composed of everything from a sonic logo featured in commercials and digital ads, to the sound effects produced when a customer uses your app or website, to a company’s hold music, and beyond.
Some brands, like Apple, have grown iconic for their product’s ringtone and startup sound. Others, such as Mastercard, have carefully deliberated their sonic brand so that it spans every consumer touchpoint, all the way down to the point-of-sale terminal.
Enhancing Your Brand Voice with Sonic Branding
Your brand voice is how your brand’s personality comes to life through all modes of expression, from the written word, to visuals, and audio. It is how your brand’s core values are expressed, and acts as the joining force between all of your content, ensuring that your brand seamlessly feels ‘like you’ and creates the right emotional reaction, no matter the channel.
Audio has always had a role to play when it comes to brand voice, exhibiting personality, evoking emotion, and building recall through commercials, jingles, radio ads or more. However, with the rise of audio content consumption, audio’s prominence has increased. Several major brands are making headlines for investing millions into the development and launch of a sonic branding strategy, which includes everything from new sonic logos, to full-on, independently released singles.
Today, sonic branding is held up as a unique identifier, as distinct and carefully crafted as a brand’s logo. The intentional selection of sound elements is meant to create consistency throughout every touchpoint of the customer experience.
Because of its importance, sonic branding needs not only to mirror, but to enhance your brand voice. Luckily, showing personality and striking an emotional chord is exactly what audio is good at – bringing your values and intended emotional reactions, quite literally, to life.
Bringing Your Brand Voice to Life in 3 Steps
Here’s how you can take your brand’s voice and bring it to life through audio in three simple steps:
Step 1: Reflect on your brand’s ‘why’
Take a long, hard look in the mirror, and ask yourself why you’re in the business that you’re in. Think back on your origin story. Remind yourself what your company initially set out to accomplish. What problems are you solving with your products and services, and why is your brand the most desirable option for your customers? What is your M.O., and how does this purposely differentiate you from your industry competitors?
As you rekindle the passion that fuelled the founding of your brand in the first place, the underlying characteristics that define your brand will begin to emerge—whether they’re grit, determination, empathy, or the desire to make the world a better place. This step is also one phase of conducting a brand audit.
Step 2: Focus on the emotional connection you want to create
When you have a distinct brand voice, you open yourself up to the possibility of achieving a strong emotional resonance with your audience. But first, of course, you have to ask yourself what kind of emotional relationship that is.
Do you want to inspire feelings of health and sustainability for being globally conscious? Do you want to convey toughness? Or maybe build a reputation for being fun and lighthearted?
Sound has an incredible ability to evoke an emotional response, so any sonic branding that you create has to be in line with your goals. Test your sonic brand with focus groups, surveys, and other methods to make sure that your sound is striking the right chord.
Step 3: Integrate your sonic brand through every customer touchpoint
The emotional relationship you create with your customer should span direct engagements (e.g. walking around a physical store, speaking with an employee over a customer phone service line, etc), as well as the emotions that endure long after a transaction (e.g. hearing a podcast ad, watching a commercial, etc). So, you need to ensure that your sonic brand is woven through all of your branded materials.
You can start by building a list of branded materials that would involve a sonic component, and either update those assets, or ensure that your sonic brand guidelines are well-documented and adhered to the next time an asset is being produced.
Remember, sonic branding doesn’t necessarily mean that you use the exact same sound file in every piece of branding, but that the sonic components you include either have ties to your sonic logo (cut downs or extended versions), or, at the very least, evoke an emotional response that’s in line with your goals.
Example: How a Brand Voice Comes to Life Through Sound, Voice, and Writing
To illustrate how brand voice can be consistently expressed in writing, visuals and audio, let’s take the fictionalized example of a pickup truck manufacturer. We’ll call the brand Carter’s.
Carter’s was founded on the belief that vehicles should both be made well, and made to last. Today, they continue to use the same quality materials that the first model was built of, by their founder, John Carter. This company’s core values include a commitment to quality, which means never cutting corners and standing behind their product 100 percent.
Carter’s may express their voice in different ways throughout different channels, but the end result should always point back to these brand core values.
Expressing Brand Voice in Commercials
The voice over they assign to their brand in their commercials may sound tough, rugged, male, and as though the speaker is in his mid-forties to early sixties. The musical component may include heavy drums in the background. This expression hails back to the company’s dogged commitment to an original vision, their founder, and the durability of the product.
Expressing Brand Voice on Social Media
On social media, Carter’s could engage with customers in a no-holds-barred, unapologetically honest manner.
This degree of transparency would fall in line with their brand values, as it aligns with their belief in taking a stance and expressing their honest opinions. Their progressive views and efforts to be environmentally conscious help them stand apart from other automobile companies.
Brand Voice Via an IVR Phone System
When someone calls the customer service line at Carter’s, the automated IVR phone system that directs them to the right department is authoritative, brief, and direct.
Meanwhile, the scripting used by the customer service department incorporates policies and procedures that include directions to be helpful, direct, and empathetic.
Although the brand may dictate that its personality is tough, that doesn’t mean that it’s tough on its customers. In this instance, the commitment to quality, (another one of one their core values), is played out when by ensuring that any complaints or concerns for quality are taken seriously.
Sonic Brand Building Exercises
Just like Carter’s, every brand will need to ensure that their sonic brand is built around their core values and enhances their brand voice.
This series of exercises will walk you through creating your sonic brand from start to finish.
Sonic Brand Building Exercise 1: Connect to Your Brand Voice
Without a listener, your brand’s voice and tone would be meaningless. Without a strong message and an intended emotional response, any communication with your audience would just be noise.
That’s why it’s always best to start this series of exercises off with reconnecting to your company’s vision, and your audience.
Take a few moments to revisit and/or familiarize yourself with any documentation that you may have on hand that describes your raison d’etre and whose lives you are impacting. Some examples may include your:
- Mission and vision statement
- Customer service guidelines
- Marketing materials
- Content guidelines
- Public relations materials/company boilerplate
- Any other documentation that guides your company goals, aspirations, and communications
Pay attention to the brand language and note:
What are your core values?
How do you live your core values (how are they outwardly expressed by way of behavior, speech, etc.)?
What words are you employing to describe the aspirational angle of your business (who you aim to be, the change you’re attempting to make, etc.)?
Who is your target demographic? Where do they live? How old are they? What approach do you use to connect with them through written, visual, and sonic materials?
What makes your brand different from others in your market, and how is this difference communicated to your target market?
As you’re reading corporate guides or materials, what emotional vibe do these internal documents convey? Or, put another way, how does the written language make you feel?
Sonic Branding Exercise 2: Describing Your Brand Sound
Once you’ve connected to your brand voice, the time has come to bring it to life through sound.
In order to describe your brand sound, you need to think about how your brand’s personality would be embodied in a real person, and/or expressed through in-person interactions. And that brings us to two exercises to help you describe your brand sound:
1. The Restaurant Meeting
Pretend that your brand has arranged a meeting at a restaurant with a very important client. The client arrives before you, and takes a seat facing the door so they can see when you come in.
We’re going to describe how you (the brand) would look and behave, and what your client would see and feel when you arrive, walk towards them and sit down together.
Consider the following questions and feel free to be unique in your answers. The included examples are meant to be just that: examples. They should prompt you, but not inform how you answer. Respond authentically for your unique brand.
The Restaurant Meeting
You arrive at the restaurant, and spot your client sitting at the far table:
How do you acknowledge them from across the room (e.g. With a respectful nod or a beaming smile?)
How do you walk over (e.g. Do you saunter casually, or with measured and professional steps?)
What do they feel when they see you approach (e.g. Does the client feel a sense of awe at your impressive presence, or are they instantly put at ease?)
Are they glad to see you? Are they exuberantly excited, or feeling relieved? Are they intimidated by the meeting?
How would the client describe what you’re wearing (e.g. are you dressed immaculately, or in a company golf shirt?) Describe what you’re wearing from shoes all the way up to your accessories.
When you speak, what is the first thing you say?
How do you say it (e.g. Is it with warmth, or cold reserve? Is your voice bright and booming? Or low and respectful?)
Why do you say it (e.g. Are you following formalities, or are you trying to create an engaging interaction right off the hop? Are you funny, or serious?)
2. The Celebrity Test
One of the most popular ways to describe the voice that we hear in our head is by giving it a celebrity reference. This is one of the reasons why celebrity spokespeople are a popular choice for many top brands.
Here, we’ll explore your brand’s celebrity persona, and examine what qualities make your chosen star a great fit.
Your Brand’s Celebrity Persona
If your brand were a celebrity, who would it be?
What does their voice sound like?
How does their voice make you feel?
What personal characteristics do they have?
Is your selection based purely on vocal qualities, or are you also drawn to that celebrity for other reasons (e.g. their personal brand, personality, previous work, etc.)?
Sonic Branding Examples: How These Big Brands Brought Their Brand Voice to Life
Now that you’re equipped with a few exercises that will help you uncover your brand voice and bring it to life, why not investigate how it panned out with these other big brands? The following are but a few brands making waves in the burgeoning realm of sonic branding, having used their brand voice to inform how to flesh out their sonic brand across various platforms.
Mastercard’s Sonic Brand
Mastercard recognized the growing prevalence of purchases being made via audio-based platforms, from smart speakers to the Internet of Things, or ‘IoT’ (connected devices, from your automobile to your fridge, that can transfer information from one computer to another without human interaction), and decided they couldn’t afford to not be operating in the audio realm. So, they added sound as a new dimension of their brand identity.
Led by Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard assembled a team of composers, neurologists, and musicologists, and also sought the collaboration of world-famous musicians such as Camila Cabello and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, as they went about identifying a “perfect sound” that could be interpreted in a countless number of ways that, no matter which version, conveys Mastercard’s brand voice.
Setting out on this undertaking, Mastercard knew their sonic brand needed to represent their brand voice: non-intruding, pleasant, and reassuring—and they wanted it to be present throughout every touchpoint a customer would encounter while making a purchase with their Mastercard. They needed their sonic brand to have a core melody with the capacity of being customized based on genre or region, all while maintaining a consistent brand voice.
When Mastercard debuted their new brand sound, they revealed multiple variations of the sonic DNA that they had cooked up. They dubbed this their ‘sonic signature’: a core, 3-second signature that would appear, for example, in their hold music, or at the end of commercial ads.
Another is their 30-second ‘sonic melody,’ an extended and layered take on the sonic signature, which can be adapted for genre (e.g. operatic, playful), and localized (e.g. Mumbai, Bogota). There are currently 20 versions of the sonic melody, with about 200 versions predicted to be produced in the near future.
An additional audio prompt Mastercard crafted was their ‘sonic acceptance sound,’ which is intended to play every time a successful transaction goes through with Mastercard. All of the aforementioned, including the ‘sonic signature,’ ‘sonic melody,’ and ‘sonic acceptance sound,’ are built upon the same foundational six-note tune.
Since the core tune never changes, the sonic brand reinforces the “seamless familiarity” that Mastercard wants to instil in its customer base.
Pandora’s Sonic Identity
Pandora Radio, being first and foremost an internet radio platform, decided it only made sense to establish a unique sonic identity and introduce it via their Sound On campaign.
The campaign, which showcased Pandora Radio’s new sonic logo in addition to all sorts of visual and interactive assets that were disseminated both online and throughout urban spaces, was designed to “mimic the feeling of opening Pandora and having instant access to the audio/soundtrack you want to hear.”
Pandora’s unique selling points included the platform’s ubiquity and easy accessibility in its users’ lives. To bring these features to life, they played into the themes of growth, transformation, living in the moment, and the universal experience of watching the seasons change around us. Their spring campaign, according to VP, Executive Creative Director, Lauren Nagel, was meant to amplify “the emotional hallmarks of the spring season: renewal, inspiration, and what we do best: discovery.”
When You’re Hiring Voice Over for Your Sonic Brand
When your sonic branding requires a human voice, ensuring that they fit your requirements should involve outlining the precise vocal qualities, style of read, and various other attributes that capture the way your brand is meant to speak.
Because the actor will serve as a consumer’s primary reference point for your brand, and because their voice will span numerous touchpoints, constantly reiterating who your brand is, how it behaves, and what it stands for, it’s best to be deliberate in your casting.
Here’s how to get the best voice actor for your sonic branding project:
Getting the Vocal Delivery You Need
One of the most common mistakes that brands make when attempting to source a voice is that they provide insufficient vocal direction in the job posting, or in the call to audition.
Here’s how to craft a job posting or casting call that will get you the vocal delivery you need:
Writing a Good Voice Over Job Description
Your voice over job should always include an overview of your project, what the intended usage is for the voice over, any technical requirements and special requests, and great vocal direction.
Great vocal direction can include:
- The action you’re trying to drive through your project
- The feeling you want to evoke
- Who the target audience is, and how the voice over should connect with them
- Vocal qualities you’d like to see reflected
Sample Voice Over Job Description
Family Feast To Go is a service specifically geared towards families and individuals who want to order in larger quantities, including those who wish to have leftovers the next day. Through the Family Feast To Go Alexa Skill, you can order dinner for pick-up or delivery. We offer meal choices to our customers that are healthy, easy to serve and of course, delicious. Food servings come in meals of 4 servings, 6 servings and 8 servings.
Our brand is known for providing incredible value, along with supporting healthy living. However, we also pride ourselves on our technology. We are the first company of our kind to offer wholesome, quick meal ordering and delivery nationwide, via our Alexa Skill. As such, Family Feast To Go is a company that’s positioned at the intersection between traditional values and new technology.
Our main demographic is composed of older millennials, who are parents of young, school-age children. Our clients mostly come from dual income families, where both parents are working outside of the home, and great value is placed on creating an easier way to feed their families healthy meals.
For this role, we’re looking for a voice actor who can serve as the brand voice for an Alexa Skill.
The right voice for this Alexa Skill is a friendly voice that appears to remember the customer each time the skill is launched. However, our brand voice also needs to embody our values and sound like our target demographic. For this job, the voice is described as middle-aged, however, consider this range to be approx. 35-45. The tone of voice should convey warmth and be caring with a smile, in an approachable, down to earth tone.
How to Describe a Voice Over
You can also consider using key words to describe your voice over, such as those associated with:
- Values (conservative or liberal)
- Tone (from serious to conservative)
- Delivery (from fast to slow)
- Volume (high-pitched to low)
Conclusion: Discovering Your Sonic Brand is Within Reach
Sonic branding is where the traditional outlets for brand expression, such as copywriting and graphics, take on a new dimension with the adoption of an audio identity.
On one hand, sonic branding is built on tactics that have been a central component of marketing since the dawn of salesmanship. On the other, it is an underdeveloped, yet widely influential arm of marketing that has for so long flown below the radar and is only now gaining dominance.
While sonic branding may be a rapidly growing topic of interest, getting started doesn’t have to be daunting. By walking your brand through a few simple exercises, you’ll quickly develop a solid understanding of your own unique persona, sound, and intended emotional response.
The time to dive into our audio era is now. Whether you’re designing ads for Pandora, creating an audio blog, launching your first Alexa Skill, starting a podcast or more, you’re in good company.
Do you have experience honing your brand voice? Let us know more about your experience in the comments below!