Sonic branding is everything from ringtones to hold music. Cue your chance to build a memorable company identity.

If music be the food of customer experience, play on. That’s the tune hummed by a rising chorus of marketing and advertising experts. Instead of an afterthought to the visual and written parts of a branding campaign, sound has become central.

Just listen to sonic branding specialist Vijaykumar Krishnan, a former executive with J. Walter Thompson who now teaches at Northern Illinois University business school.

“First, the consumer today is available for auditory interface more than ever before,” says Krishnan. “It starts with cell phones and iPods, then sitting next to a computer, then a car radio or GPS, then what is being piped into a store, and so on. Current generations have grown up completely immersed in music.”

Second, says Krishnan, “You can shut your eyes, but you can never shut your ears.”

On that note, here are some factors to consider for sonic branding your business.

How to Add Sonic Branding to Your Business: What is Sonic Branding?

Audrey Arbeeny is founder and executive producer of the Emmy-winning firm AudioBrain, which is based in New York and has designed music for NBC’s Olympics, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Virgin Mobile, among others.

She defines sonic branding as “The strategic development of a brand’s attributes through sound and its deployment across a multitude of touchpoints to create a seamless, cohesive and authentic sonic presence.”

Arbeeny, who began her business in 1995 and also teaches sonic branding at Pratt Institute’s undergraduate communications design program, says that’s a shift from three or four years ago. Clients back then usually wanted just a sound logo – a short pattern of notes like NBC’s chimes or the “Intel Inside” tune.

Now, she says, “They want their entire customer experience connected. Companies have a main phone number, a mobile phone number, a website, all with different sounds that don’t make sense together. They realize customers are using these products and want something cohesive that also makes them stand out.”

How to Add Sonic Branding to Your Business: How Sonic Branding Works

Sonic branding doesn’t yet have a ton of market data to back its efficacy. However, a growing body of academic research attests to the powerful emotional and psychological bonds between music and listener.

Much of it is from Europe, where sonic branding is better established partly because music surmounts the challenges of marketing to a multilingual continent. For example, 2008 research at Leicester University in the United Kingdom found companies that match their brand to music are 96 percent more likely to be remembered, and that 24 percent of customers are more likely to buy from a store that plays music they liked hearing.

In the United States, Dr. James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati has popularized the term “earworm” to describe those hooky little tunes you can’t get out of your head. Ongoing surveys show many earworms include company themes and jingles, which has excited marketers no end.

Goldsmiths University in London currently is in the midst of a project to isolate what makes earworms effective. Its leader, Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen, was made “Scientist in Residence” at ad agency DDB in London last fall, a first for the advertising world.

How to Add Sonic Branding to Your Business: Determine if Sonic Branding Fits

Just because you can get a custom ringtone or website theme doesn’t mean you need one. Consider your customer base and sales environment.

One of Audiobrain’s clients is 1st Advantage Federal Credit Union, which is headquartered in Newport News, Va., and has 11 branches with 60,000 member customers throughout Eastern Virginia.

Jim Craig, vice president of marketing, was referred to Audiobrain while conducting a re-evaluation of the credit union’s brand image. “We were working on other touchpoints – our website, marketing materials, etcetera – and it made sense to consider sonic branding in light of all the work and money we were putting into everything else.”

Still, he wasn’t pre-sold on the concept. That changed after Arbeeny challenged 1st Advantage to describe its brand personality in order to create a rapport through music, forcing the company to think through just how it wanted to sound to customers.

“It was revelatory,” says Craig. “Sonic branding may not be for everyone. But our lesson was, if your business is about delivering an experience to customers, music should be part of it.”

How to Add Sonic Branding to Your Business: Identify Your Sonic Touchpoints

The first order of business for 1st Advantage was a signature piece of music to asset its identity. Audiobrain designed a sonic logo usable across a variety of sound touchpoints. It initially was deployed in branch locations, including one branch where it became a door chime to signal the arrival of customers.

The next step was to foster a positive climate for branch visitors. So AudioBrain developed a selection of licensed music for playing over the company’s in-house sound system. The music, consisting of recordings from the 1920s up through the present, is interspersed with short 1st Advantage commercials using the sound logo.

AudoBrain periodically sends 1st Advantage an updated selection. “It consistently matches our brand personality of being human, empowering and welcoming,” says Craig, noting “Audrey even found urban music with positive themes,” widening 1st Advantage’s demographic appeal.

The latest addition is a full music theme based on the short sound logo. Although 1st Advantage does limited TV and radio, its 60th anniversary is this year and the theme will be used in a series of celebratory spots featuring employees and customers. At some point, the credit union also plans to use the sound logo on its website.

How to Add Sonic Branding to Your Business: The Price of Sonic Branding

Many factors affect cost, including the number of sonic elements, whether music is licensed or owned, and where it’s used. First Advantage paid Audiobrain about $30,000 for the logo, music mix service at its branches and full theme music for ads.

If that seems steep, it’s less than it used to be.  Ryan Wines is co-founder and chief strategist of sonic branding at Marmoset Music, a boutique house in Portland, Ore. Marmoset composes and licenses music and has a roster of artists to supply the highly sought-after indie sound currently prized for projecting authenticity and individuality.

Wines says technology advances combined with drastic changes in the music industry have made sonic branding far more accessible: “It’s an exciting time for small brands.”

Most of Marmoset’s music is produced for broadcast television spots, web and promotional brand vignettes. While its clients include major brands like Anheuser Busch, Nike and Levi Strauss, about half are small- and medium-sized businesses.

For the latter, says Wines, “Fees can vary significantly depending on the project. On the lower end of the pricing spectrum, $10,000 to $20,000 for original music licensed for a limited term, used in smaller mediums and regional campaigns can be typical. Bigger national brand campaigns can range anywhere from $30,000 to an upwards of $100,000 or more.”

How to Add Sonic Branding to Your Business: Find a Sonic Branding Service

Because sonic branding should be part of an integrated branding campaign, any marketing consultant advising your company should be able to provide direction. But there are some other ways to do research.

Wines says most of Marmoset’s business comes via referral from advertising agencies, client recommendations or someone who has heard Marmoset’s work somewhere and liked it.

“What I would tell businesses is to take note of music you enjoy in a commercial or retail setting, then find out who did it,” says Wines. “Music is highly emotional and often your response will tell you who’s doing work you might want.”

There’s also a budding organization called the Association of Music Producers (AMP). Its goal is to provide guidance and standards for the industry and information to the music, media and advertising communities.

When interviewing a sound branding service, be guided by the same standards you’d use for hiring an ad agency.

How to Add Sonic Branding to Your Business: Sonic Branding ROI 

It’s hard to nail the exact ROI for sonic branding, so you’ll sleep better if you regard the expense as a long-term investment rather than a short-term revenue producer.

Craig has used mystery shops and anecdotal samplings from customers and says, “We’ve gotten feedback that shows both customers and employees like the music, and I have to say we’re happy.”

Some owners may wonder why they can’t just download a generic ringtone or turn on a radio. The answer to that may lie in the changing nature of consumers.

“Listeners are much more discerning today when it comes to music and sonic branding,” says Wines. “It’s a quest for what’s more personal and relatable.”

And consumers have more choices. “Our ability to get anything we want at any time makes it imperative to rise about the clutter,” says Arbeeny, “and sound is a very good way to do that.”

By Key McFadden


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