ECONOMY

Brands Are Coming for Your Ears

Pavlov would be lovin’ it. 

The man who used metronomes, buzzers and harmoniums to explore involuntary reflex actions would be in his element observing the beeps, chirps, plinks, pulses, tings and swooshes that command us — to say nothing of our faux-friendly commands to Alexa, Bixby, Cortana and Siri. (Hey!)

The latest front in branding’s battle for our attention is audio — as will be familiar to anyone who has measured out their lockdown with Netflix “ta-dums.” By this stage of late-stage capitalism, even the smallest brands have a “look and feel.” Now, faced with a saturated visual field and a consumer stampede to audio, companies are looking to complement their “tone of voice” with a matching “voice of tone.”

In contrast to advertising’s traditional audio tactics of iconic singles and vexatious jingles, “sonic branding” aspires to develop a strategic “soundscape” of “aural assets” — stings, bumpers, earcons and Ohrwurms — by sequencing each brand’s “audio DNA.”

The “Sound of O2,” for instance, was driven by this bold vision:

Which apparently sums to:

And in 2017, Visa proudly announced it had spent more than a year working with three specialist agencies to select from 200 options this one-second, two-tone chirrup:

Of course, corporate audio is nothing new. The chimes of the National Broadcasting Company were developed almost a century ago, and Brian Eno’s start-up sound for Windows 95 is about to turn 26. But the intensity and ubiquity of sonic branding is reaching a pitch where the unlikeliest of organizations feel compelled to plant a flag on the audio spectrum: Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority now has a sonic logo, as does the German dictionary Duden

Even Intel, creator of the most pestering earcon yet, doubled down on its bong quintet by commissioning (without irony) an orchestral interpolation with Beethoven’s Fifth:

Sonic signatures are as old as life on Earth. From the booms, chirrups, clucks, croaks, trills and whistles of mating, to the barks, bellows, hisses, rattles, roars and snarls of attack — animals of every stripe unleash a symphony of “trademark sounds” to woo and warn. 

The earliest human audio brands were similarly inspired by two elemental forces. First, conflict — where battle cries, war drums and an orchestra of horns, pipes, fifes and bugles were used to establish esprit de corps and broadcast commands over the thunder of combat.

Second, commerce — where hand-bells and street cries allowed itinerant peddlers to announce their arrival and local vendors to hawk their wares. Until comparatively recently, nearly all trading was “open outcry” and in markets, bazaars, souks and street corners across the world what defined a brand was the volume of its pitch and the charm of its patter.

Floating above the fray of these mercantile and military clarions are the most enduring earcons of all: the drums, gongs, bells and calls to prayer that for millennia — from hilltops, steeples and minarets — have summoned the faithful to worship.

Audio offers brands a range of complementary opportunities.

Sound allows brands to define and defend ownership of a moment — most effectively when the sound itself derives from a product’s physical properties. Perhaps the most enduring example is the “snap! crackle! pop!” of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies which, since it first appeared on a cereal box in 1932, has encapsulated the moment the milk hits the cereal, and breakfast begins. 

Other brand-defined audio events include the Kit-Kat “snap” of a well-deserved break; the “shhhh” Schweppervescence of Schweppes tonic; the domestic thrift of Asda’s coin-chinking “pocket tap”; the Sunday-roast “aaah” of Bisto instant gravy; and the promise of relief from Alka-Seltzer’s “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” (or “plink, plink, fizz” if you’re British). 

That brand-specific sounds have an impact distinct to conventional music is illustrated by the 33-year-long campaign, “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.” From the outset, Hamlet used Bach’s “Air on the G String” to soundtrack a series of mishaps which called for the balm of a mild cigar. But, as distinctive as Bach’s air became, the ads that “click” are those that added the sound of a match being struck to “own” each moment of failure:

These brands are merely toying with the ownership of moments. When Coca-Cola launched its 2016 “Taste the Feeling” campaign, the company revealed no fewer than 22 specific audio cues that comprised Coke’s twin “soundworlds” (“thirst” and “refreshment”) and demonstrated how they could be combined into “intrinsic soundscapes” to “tell the story of the product and evoke a visceral connection” — Bottle Open 1 + Bottle Open 2 + Bottle Cap + Ice Cube + Pour + Fizz End = Ahh.

Such beguilingly emotive sounds don’t simply buff the studios’ brand, they prime the audience for a shift in reality: As the lights fade and the anthem soars, disbelief is suspended … something is about to begin. George Orwell described the effect in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”:

As carnival barkers, street performers, political campaigners and Christmas carolers know only too well, sound has the power to transcend the logo’s line-of-sight and move a crowd — emotionally, commercially and physically. In 1865, William Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, observed:

The industry most associated with sonic selling is ice cream, as Daniel T. Neely wrote:

Neely goes on to quote Barry Truax, who argued that not everyone is charmed by chimes that are as imposing as they are appealing:

As Truax notes, this calls to mind Adolf Hitler’s 1938 claim: “Without the loudspeaker, we would never have conquered Germany.”

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” — David Ogilvy for Rolls-Royce

The auditory tension inherent in car marketing is neatly illustrated by two classic ads: The roaring engine and squealing tires of the Mini Countryman:

And the hushed solidity of the Volkswagen Golf:

Adding fresh complexity to this industry dichotomy is the eerie silence of electric vehicles, which presents car manufacturers with a trifold challenge: inventing external sounds to meet pedestrian safety regulations; developing internal “engine” noises to augment driver feedback; and devising new sonic assets to burnish the brand. 

In pursuit of these goals, Nissan has created a “singing” suite of alerts to accompany acceleration, breaking and reversing; Mercedes-AMG tapped the rock band Linkin Park, for some reason; and BMW teamed up with Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer to “emotionalize BMW’s electric vehicles and make them audible using individual sound worlds.”

Creating branded audio that works in the real world isn’t without its challenges, as Jaguar discovered:

Just as foul-smelling mercaptans are added to odorless natural gas as a cautionary olfactory klaxon, so fridges beep when their doors are left open, cars chime when you stray across lanes, and smoke detectors chirrup when their batteries are dying. Indeed audio’s ability to caution consumers is so strong that entire safety campaigns have been built around sound. Britain’s “Clunk Click Every Trip” campaign, for example, successfully conditioned a cautionary bond between the clunk of a car door and the click of a seatbelt: 

Sound also has the power to confirm — reassuring users that an action has been completed and a brand promise delivered. This explains, for instance, why contactless payments are confirmed with “success” bleeps, and why Apple’s new AirTags have four confirmatory trills (Welcome, Setup Complete, Find My, Battery Connected). It also explains the skeuomorphic incorporation of fake physical sounds into virtual actions: the swoosh of a sent email; the click of a shutterless camera, the crumple of a desktop trash-can being emptied. 

Similarly, when Snapple introduced a new plastic bottle in 2018, the company worked hard to replicate the “pop” of its glass bottles which confirms the brand’s values of quality, safety and freshness. And in 2012, Volkswagen sought to communicate the “Power of German Engineering” with an advert based entirely on the “thunk” of the Jetta’s door:

Sweet Caroline (ba-ba-bah)

There is an aristocracy of taglines so catchy (“Where’s the beef?” “Diamonds are forever”) that they become popular phrases in their own right. Even slogans that baffle consumers (“Vorsprung Durch Technik”) are repeated with genuine glee. But within this upper class is an upper echelon of slogans with such an irresistible “call and response” quality that it’s almost impossible to hear, “Maybe she’s born with it …” without replying (or at least thinking) “… maybe it’s Maybelline.” Similarly “Ho, Ho, Ho” prompts “Green Giant”; “Ding-dong!” prompts (to a certain generation) “Avon calling!”; and “We are Farmers” prompts “bum-be-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum”.

Possibly the stickiest call-and-response earcon was launched in 2003 by McDonald’s, via the simple expedient of paying Justin Timberlake $6 million to incorporate it into a song, and then spending $1.37 billion on that year’s advertising. Eighteen years later (an eternity in brand years) the call of “Ba-Da-Ba-Ba-Bah” still prompts the near global response, “I’m lovin’ it!”

Related to the catchiness of “call and response” is the concept of Stockholm Syndrome — the bond that is said occasionally to develop between hostages and their captors. Although most companies are anxious to avoid the “genericide” of trademark dilution — think Hoover, Photoshop, Band-Aid and Kleenex — a few brands aspire for their lingo to linger on your lips. 

Here the market leader is surely Starbucks, which gave a country that had, for generations, been happy with a plain old mug o’ Joe a coffee vocabulary so elaborate that in 2003 the company published a 22-page glossary entitled, “Make Your Drink.” By combining diner slang (“no fun,” “with legs”) with (mis)appropriated Italian (“venti,” “grande,” “misto”), Starbucks defamiliarized the mundane and created proprietary terms for a generic good.

Just as diplomats know the power of “pen holding,” and contract lawyers speak of the “first draft advantage,” so Starbucks discovered that having its words coming out of our mouths creates deep brand equity, dogged customer loyalty — and an army of unpaid pitchmen. People may mock the “Triple, Venti, Soy, No Foam Latte” or the “Chai Crème Frappuccino” but they order them in their millions. 

One ring-tone to rule them all

It’s almost comic that the clichés of car advertising persist. Instead of reflecting the smoggy reality of rush-hour gridlock, gleaming vehicles are shown speeding across salt-flats, hugging alpine hairpin turns or zipping through sanitized Sunday-deserted streets. Each car (and therefore every driver) is serenely singular in a world devoid of congestion.

Similarly, in the world of sonic branding, companies imagine their audio DNA chiming out with the clarity of a chapel bell into that same silent Sunday. Each sonic logo (and therefore every brand) is serenely singular in a world devoid of commotion.

The reality, of course, is quite otherwise. 

It’s impossible to know whether the immersive soundscapes of branded audio will evolve to resemble “Minority Report” …

…  or “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”:

But as more brands elbow their way into our ears, the “cocktail party problem” — our ability to tune-in to competing sounds like cameras finding focus — risks becoming intractable. This explains the growing concern over “alarm fatigue” in critical hospital settings, and why airplane cockpits are carefully designed to eliminate all but the most essential audio alerts.

A few months ago, a senior Mastercard executive said the quiet part out loud: 

Clearly, he intended this as a selling point for sonic branding — and, for Mastercard, it is. But from the grating annoyance of car alarms to the unimaginable torture of “futility music,” our inability to “close our ears” is more often than not a torment. Just ask Pavlov’s dogs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.

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