Sonic Logos: A Master Class to Designing Your Brand Soundscape
What comes to mind when you hear the phrases “Ding dong! Avon calling,” or “ba da ba ba ba, I’m lovin’ it”? Does your brain instantly conjure an image, recall an aroma, or feel overcome by a particular emotion? Why do certain sounds provoke certain sensations? Well, without consciously realizing it, your brain is probably responding to the effects of a strong sonic logo at work.
The aforementioned sonic logos—for Avon and McDonald’s, respectively—are two of the most iconic examples of a flourishing branch of modern marketing now recognized as sound, audio, or sonic branding.
In this article, you’ll learn why your brand needs a sonic logo, you’ll be provided with examples of the most robust sonic logos and leading companies in today’s audio branding sector, and you’ll be led through the best practices for creating your own sonic logo. Oh, and pay close attention: there’s a quiz at the end!
A Brief History of the Sonic Logo
Traditionally, when a brand set out to articulate what it looked and sounded like, its marketing efforts were predominantly focused on crafting a visual logo and written copy. Then, when tasked with expressing their essence by way of an audio or audiovisual medium, like radio or TV, said brand may have commissioned a musician to whip up a jingle to accompany the ad.
These jingles were typically ear worms: short, snappy, and engineered to get trapped inside their listeners’ heads. If all went according to plan, a jingle enhanced brand recall and lent the brand a dynamic, catchy personality.
However, most of the time these jingles were composed only to support the commercial’s copy, rather than function as one component toward establishing the brand’s overarching, multifaceted sonic identity.
To a greater extent than the commercial jingles of bygone days, the sonic logo of today is made up of a progression of musical notes that stand as the brand’s core audio DNA. This foundation can be reinterpreted in a variety of capacities, according to mood, region, genre, and more. These malleable sonic logos can also be reshaped to serve as the basis for everything from a full-length music track, to the brief functional sounds activated as a user presses buttons or completes a transaction.
The key strategy is no longer to tunnel deep into your audience’s brain after bombarding them with an irresistible hook, but rather to build a holistic brand soundscape that draws on your sonic logo to make your audience feel exactly the way you want them to about your brand.
So Why Does My Brand Need a Sonic Logo?
The audio consumption of today’s consumers is at a record high. No matter what service your business offers, it has become more important than ever to invest in developing an audio brand.
24% of U.S. adults—or around 60 million people—own a smart speaker today. By 2022, voice commerce sales are forecast to reach $40 billion, representing about 5% of total commerce sales. These percentages, dollar amounts, and the prominence of voice in the public’s day-to-day lives are only projected to grow.
With the emergence and, frankly, near-domination of voice-activated devices, brands are now afforded the ability to to interweave their unique sound into their customer’s everyday routine.
To illustrate the power of creating a multi-sensory brand experience, consider the careful planning that went behind successful retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch. Upon entering, you can expect to be inundated by the smell of cologne and throbbing club music. By the same token, when a consumer makes a purchase from your brand via a voice-activated device, or even simply opens a piece of your content, you’ll want the force of your audio branding to replicate the physical sensation of walking into a store—experiencing a transition from the outside world and into your singular universe, complete with its own sound architecture.
Research backs up the powerful influence of sound. In the Best Audio Brands Report 2019, it was found that “brand engagement is far stronger when audio is treated as an equal and essential aspect of the brand.” Consumers have reported that, when a brand uses disparate stock music for each new piece of content they put out, paying little mind to their overall audio identity, the brand is perceived as being less consistent and reliable as a whole.
When you’re ready to embark on the journey of building your perception in the audio sphere, there’s no better place to start than with your sonic logo.
Sonic Logos Your Ears are Bound to Remember
Sonic logos have been around longer than the term ‘sonic logo’ itself. Some of the early sonic logos were so well-designed that they’ve even become ingrained in our collective consciousness, with the power to make anyone feel nostalgic without warning.
Let’s take a look at some of recent history’s most iconic sonic logos to decipher what made them stick, as well as what they can teach you about crafting your own sonic logo that stands the test of time.
Classic Sonic Logos
The following sonic logos were composed for ad campaigns, just like a traditional jingle would be. However, they had such a lasting effect because they consciously employed innovative marketing techniques that went above and beyond your everyday commercial jingle. Predating our current era of audio branding agencies and guidebooks to building your sonic brand, these classic logos are pioneering displays of sonic logos as we know them today.
The fast food franchise is something of a trendsetter when it comes to modern sonic branding. In 2003, they debuted “I’m Lovin’ It,” a pop single written by Pharrell Williams and performed by Justin Timberlake. The track formed the basis for a series of commercials that were localized for regional markets and translated into multiple languages.
Although “I’m Lovin’ It” was actually an adaptation of McDonald’s Germany’s “Ich Liebe Es” campaign, the Timberlake vehicle proved a smash success and, as far as many are concerned, a watershed moment in the field of sonic marketing. The campaign showed just how far a good hook can travel. While “I’m Lovin’ It” was initially conceived for a campaign, the jingle’s endurance demonstrated that the outcome of thoughtful sonic logo development can be an iconic sound that just never goes away.
Music industry veteran Steven Stoute went on to identify the famous collaboration as a brilliant example of ‘reverse engineering’: “boosting the credibility of a brand’s message by ‘first putting it into a pop culture form that isn’t connected in any way to the brand.’”
What can we learn from this?
“I’m Lovin’ It” was a full-fledged release from one of the biggest pop stars of his day, complete with a music video, that topped the charts in Belgium. (McDonald’s even went on to sponsor Timberlake’s European tour). The most noteworthy aspect of this campaign is probably in the fact that McDonald’s didn’t limit themselves to traditional advertising avenues, but rather went all-out and forayed into the music industry by deploying star power and producing a bonafide musical release.
Today, brands are just beginning to craft full-length songs (and even albums!) that integrate their sonic logos, so McDonald’s can definitely lay claim to being at the forefront of this branch of marketing.
In 1954, Avon launched a TV ad campaign featuring the image of an elegant Avon representative turning up at a customer’s doorstep with an assortment of cosmetic products. Yet, even more than this now-iconic visual, the campaign was bolstered by its sonic logo, which arose long before the advent of sonic logos as we discuss them today. “Ding Dong! Avon calling” grew into a ‘60s catchphrase, and now, decades later, the brand has formulated a way to incorporate their original tagline—particularly its doorbell chime—into their new sonic branding initiative.
What can we learn from this?
Avon did a stellar job of producing an unforgettable pairing of sound and image that permeated the collective consciousness. Instead of abandoning their former sonic logo, which had accumulated vast cultural capital over the years, Avon paid homage to their past by merging the tagline into their new, contemporary soundscape.
Revamping their sound so seamlessly undoubtedly placed Avon at the forefront of modern branding.
Forty years after Avon first made their mark, computer manufacturer Intel introduced what would go on to become one of the most ubiquitous five-note patterns of the modern age. Composed by former Austrian electronica musician Walter Werzowa as part of the brand’s Intel Inside campaign, Werzowa has gone back and refreshed the sonic logo every few years, all the while maintaining the sleek musical progression of the inaugural iteration.
Greg Welch, Intel’s global brand strategy director, boasted that the sonic logo grew so omnipresent that “people can be in the next room and know what happened on TV.” To drive the point home, it’s been theorized that the Intel bong sounds somewhere on earth about every five minutes.
What can we learn from this?
Intel triumphed in the realm of audio branding because they were able to mould only a handful of notes into a sonic signature that sounds like nothing else out there. Its glossy simplicity initially evoked the sound of the future, but now—being over a quarter century old—it’s additionally gained a sense of familiarity that’s steadily boosted consumer trust.
One reason the tech corporation was able to pull off such a feat can be traced back to their use of a musician-turned-film-composer to helm the sonic logo. The fact that Intel never rebranded, and held on to their signature bong for decades, clearly enhanced their brand recall in the public eye. At the same time, they avoided becoming dated by giving the sound a slight update every couple of years.
The Modern Sonic Logo
The sonic logos of yore were mostly snappy taglines that tried to pack as much punch as possible into a fleeting time frame, with the intention of familiarizing customers with a brand. Today’s sonic logos, on the other hand, are more fluid and flexible.
The sonic logo of today is meant to serve as the foundation for a modifiable soundscape that can be re-envisioned and reinterpreted in a variety of ways. Each sonic logo can be re-imagined using different instrumentation, in different musical keys, for different moods and different cultural regions.
A sonic logo can serve as the heart of your overarching brand. It can literally and figuratively set the tone for various sonic iterations. At the same time, it’s important to distinguish between your logo—which tends to be short and composed of only a few notes—and your sonic brand, which expands on the emotions packaged in the logo, and which will be interwoven throughout numerous customer touch points and experiences.
Today’s sonic logos can be augmented and made into full-length tracks that actually wind up on audience’s playlists, operating in a realm beyond simple brand recognition. They can also be reshaped into functional sounds that play when a user, say, makes a purchase using the brand’s app. No matter in what capacity the sonic logo appears, it will echo the holistic experience of the brand, reflecting the equivalent sound architecture that would envelop you as you peruse a physical store, or greet you on the phone, or provide the score for a branded video on YouTube.
Now, let’s explore a few of the brands making the biggest waves in today’s marketing sphere. By giving birth to new sonic logos, these game-changing companies are transcending our traditional understanding of the form by pushing audio branding into uncharted territory.
Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s Chief Marketing Officer, made the observation that audio-based platforms, like smart speakers, were increasingly becoming points of sale. Realizing that Mastercard was risking becoming irrelevant if they did not have a stake in the audio realm, he and his team got to work incorporating sound as a new dimension of their brand identity.
Mastercard consulted an assortment of recording musicians, musicologists, and neurologists in an effort to identify a ‘perfect sound’ that, no matter whether it was performed by an opera chorus or mixed as an EDM track, would convey Mastercard’s singular brand voice.
But first Rajamannar and co. needed to define their brand voice. They identified a few qualities that they needed their sonic logo to possess: non-intruding, pleasant, reassuring. It was important that their sonic logo exude these characteristics, because it would form the backbone of their sonic identity. This sonic identity would be present throughout every touch point that a customer could theoretically encounter while using their Mastercard.
When the financial corporation debuted their brand sound, they revealed multiple main variations of the new sonic DNA.
Firstly, they had their sonic signature: a core, three-second signature that would appear at the end of commercials, or as part of their IVR phone system hold music.
Next, they had their sonic melody: an extended version of the sonic signature which can be adapted for different genres (cinematic, playful), and localized (Dubai, Cape Town).
An additional prompt the company introduced was their sonic acceptance sound, which plays every time a successful transaction is processed with Mastercard. The goal is for the sonic acceptance sound to eventually be able adapt to a cardholder’s surroundings: “The sound for Tiffany’s will be very different from that of Gamestop,” Rajamannar explained in an interview.
What can we learn from this?
Mastercard’s sonic signature, melody, and acceptance sound are all shaped from the same six-note tune (sonic logo). Since the core DNA goes unchanged throughout every audio asset, the ‘seamless familiarity’ that Mastercard is striving to instill in its customer base and beyond is successfully reinforced.
In 2016, South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai teamed up with German audio branding agency why do birds to develop a six-note sequence to launch as their new sonic logo.
The logo was first presented at the October 2016 Paris Motor Show, and subsequently woven through all of their auditory channels, generating what they dubbed the ‘Hyundai sound universe.’
These channels spanned everything including “within the car in the form of welcome and warning tones, in the showroom with varying soundscapes, in promotional films and commercials with soundtracks, at trade fairs and events with trailers and music playlists, and in the music in phone waiting loops.”
Hyundai’s sonic logo was rooted in the company’s mission, which is to “make modern mobility available for everyone.” Alongside why do birds, the creative team decided that the six-tone sequence should sound refined, confident, and not over complicated. The progression they came up with has a clear, bright timbre, and an open ending, which was purposefully emblematic of the brand’s positive outlook on the future.
What can we learn from this?
By crafting a minimalist sequence centred around their brand claim—“making modern mobility available for everyone”—the sky’s the limit for Hyundai. The ‘sound universe’ they’ve crafted doesn’t feel inherently tied to automobiles, but instead signals a broader emotion. The logo would sound as appropriate scoring a commercial as it does welcoming you into your car, so the manufacturer doesn’t run the risk of having to reinvent their sound depending on new products and technology. The core sound is so pliant that it can be stretched as far as the company is able to reach.
SNCF (Société nationale des chemins)
In 2005, France’s state-owned railway service, which had long dominated the national transportation conversation, was faced with new competition. The Société nationale des chemins, or SNCF, determined that they needed to advance their public perception beyond serving as a mere utility for getting from Point A to B, and into a brand leader that travellers had positive associations with. Creating a sonic logo from scratch was the optimal path to go down because, as SNCF would soon come to learn, sound—more than any other sense—has the power to provoke an immediate, unadulterated emotional response.
SNCF partnered with audio branding agency Sixième Son to come up with the four-note melody that, over a decade later, is recognized by over 90% of the French population. The now-iconic sound is played on trains and at stations to signal important announcements, but it also shows up at around 120 sonic touchpoints: from customer service hold music, to radio ads, to audio played over loudspeakers at events.
SNCF and Sixième Son wanted their sonic logo to communicate softness, proximity, and good service. At first, they set themselves apart by deploying a driving tempo and a confident voice to position themselves as a leader in human mobility. In 2009, SNCF updated their core DNA by infusing acoustic instrumentation into their logo to reflect the rise of eco-conscious initiatives. In 2013, they reintroduced a variation of the sonic logo that retained the acoustic elements, while intertwining them again with more contemporary textures.
What can we learn from this?
SNCF did a masterful job at introducing a sonic logo that both served as a functional sound—the signal of trains arriving and departing—and carried emotional gravity. The ability for the sonic logo to perform those two tasks at once clearly contributed to the massive ratio of French citizens’ total recall of the brand. The logo was even licensed by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and sampled in one of his songs.
Launching Your Sonic Logo
So how do you know when it’s the right time to produce your brand’s sonic DNA?
It’s worth noting that you don’t necessarily need to take after a brand like Mastercard by developing an entire musical album based on your sonic logo. Instead, you can simply draw on the core progression that makes up your sonic logo, and focus solely on its usage and maximizing its placement to forge your own version of a brand soundscape.
In terms of timing, creating a sonic logo offers one of the most robust ways to crystallize a rebrand or repositioning of your company. A new sonic logo can accompany a major product launch, or the rollout of a customer loyalty program.
In fact, along with the launch of your core sonic logo, you may also want to create a variation of your sound to align with a new product or feature within your company. For example, your latest car model meant for driving off road might get its own acoustic, fast-paced rendition of your sonic logo, to emphasize nature and adventure.
At any given time, developing a unique sonic logo can also be an important step toward coalescing a brand’s physical presence with its digital properties. Audio branding at company events (both for the public, as well as internal stakeholders and employees), the kinds of playlists played in stores, and the tone of voice used on loudspeakers to address shoppers are all elements that contribute to your overarching brand sound.
Best Practices for Creating Your Brand’s Very Own Sonic Logo
Use these steps as a guide when you’re taking to the studio to conceive a sonic logo that won’t just be the temporary soundtrack to your next campaign, but the foundation for a soundscape that customers will associate with your brand long into the future.
1. First, determine your brand’s values and essential qualities. What do you stand for? What makes you you?
2. Compile a series of adjectives that best describe your brand and reflect what you want your brand to sound like (Tip: This sonic branding guide can help).
3. Conduct a brand audit to gauge whether there are any pre-existing auditory assets that can suggest possible routes to take when creating your new sonic logo. Determine if your sonic identity will be influenced by sounds your company has used in the past, or whether you want to leave the old behind and head in an entirely new direction. Listen to former ads you’ve published, podcasts you’ve recorded, etc. to get a sense of your current audio branding.
4. Create an inventory of every touchpoint a consumer can pass through while using your product or purchasing from you. All of these touchpoints are domains where your sonic identity can and should live. You don’t need to limit yourself to touchpoints that already exist! Instead, get creative, gaze into the future, and think up everywhere where your brand could possibly exist.
5. Connect with a talented composer. Call up one of your famous friends, ask a favor, and get them attached to your project (we’re mostly kidding). If this isn’t possible, consider commissioning a talented composer, or if your budget allows, go after a ‘name’ in the music industry. Renowned ambient musician Brian Eno composed the iconic Windows ’95 startup sound (on a Mac, no less), so you never know what you can accomplish by seeking out someone notable in their field and requesting they dabble in some corporate content creation.
6. Create multiple versions of your prospective sonic logo. Whether you’re creating your logo all by your lonesome, have assembled an in-house team, or are outsourcing the project to an audio branding agency, it’s pertinent that more than one version of the sonic logo be created. When you have a few potential sound DNA optoins to choose between, you have the opportunity to run testing and distinguish which one works the best. If you only have one, you have nothing to compare it with.
7. Form a focus group and run your sonic logo shortlist by all of them. The focus group can variously consist of members of your company and creative team, brand stakeholders, members of your target demographic—occasionally it’s even valuable to get the input of friends or family who aren’t associated with the project. Host one—or several—joint listening sessions and get a number of opinions.
8. Ensure that your core sonic logo has the capacity to be re-envisioned, localized, and updated. While you want it to be contemporary and cutting-edge, you also want it to have the longevity to be used well into the future to articulate your brand voice. This isn’t a one-time campaign, and you want to put as much effort and meaning into creating your sonic logo as you would a visual logo.
9. Prioritize simplicity. At the end of the day, after all this careful and strategic deliberation, try not to overthink the project by crafting an elaborate, polyphonic orchestration. Restraint is key. Make sure the sonic logo that you settle on is clean, memorable, and hummable.
Quiz: Can You Name These Brands Based on Their Sonic Logo?
Now that we’ve thoroughly investigated this diverse array of sonic logos, just how well have they worked their magic? Can you recognize the following brands merely by the sound of their sonic logo?