Sonic branding is increasing in importance with the rapid growth in smart speaker use.
Do you have a sonic brand? Today, most brands don’t. Or, if they do, it’s limited to one medium, like a jingle used in radio ads or television commercials. While nobody would question the need for a brand logo or color scheme, audio branding is often neglected.
A few brands have focused on their sonic brand and created a strong association with it. United Airlines is one—since 1980, they have deployed variations of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in many settings. In television commercials, they have arranged the iconic piece to relate to the advertised destinations or other themes. They play other variations in spaces they control, even the psychedelic tunnel connecting their terminals at O’Hare airport. Decades of repetition has created an indelible association.
A particular kind of sonic branding is the “sonic signature” – a few notes that are repeated in the same way, often as a confirmation of an action. For instance, the sound you hear when you turn on your computer or your phone, or when Amazon’s Alexa carries out your command, are all sonic signatures. These sonic signatures are highly intentional in some cases and relate to other elements of the company’s branding.
In other cases, these short sound elements may have been developed to be merely functional. The two note Alexa confirmation, for example, doesn’t seem to evoke brand recognition, at least for me.
There’s one big transformation taking place today that makes developing a sonic brand far more important than in the past: the rise of smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo and Google Nest.
According to Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard CMO and author of Quantum Marketing, 25% of U.S. households already use smart speakers. And, these devices are increasingly used for shopping. One forecast predicts smart speaker shipments will total 400 million in 2025, about four times the 2019 estimate.
Amazon, the market leader in smart speakers, has a vested interest in encouraging shopping behavior on the devices. Just as Amazon has reduced the complexity of online shopping to a one-click purchase, we can expect them to make voice purchases ever easier for the consumer.
A brand with a highly developed and easily recognized visual identity has no advantage when interacting with a smart speaker. In audio-only interactions, a sonic identity is a key way of relating to the overall brand.
Rajamannar points out that the sonic brand effort can’t be limited to smart speaker interactions. These are too few to develop the association with the overall brand.
Rather, he says, sonic branding must be embedded into every possible touchpoint with the consumer. Mastercard’s own sonic branding begins with what they call a “comprehensive sound architecture.” This full melody in multiple versions for different cultures and uses, and even a five note “acceptance” sonic signature for completed transactions.
Only when the association between sound and brand is automatic and unconscious will the potential of sonic branding be fully realized.