Using Sound to Rise Above the Noise

(This article originally ran on

By Matthew Schwartz

“Alexa, order more cereal.”

Is the world moving from search to sound? It sure seems that way. This year, nearly 36 million Americans will use a voice-enabled speaker at least once a month, a 129 percent increase from 2016, according to a report released last spring by eMarketer.

The proliferation of voice-enabled assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and OK Google, presents brands with new marketing vehicles to get their messages out. It also underscores the growing importance of audio branding, or how companies use sound and music to define and reinforce brand identity.

People know audio branding when they hear it. Think of Intel’s iconic five-note sonic bong, the famous melody of State Farm insurance (“Like a Good Neighbor”), or George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” scoring United Airlines ads. However, audio branding is not limited solely to corporate jingles, and should not be confused with one-off soundtracks noting a new product or service.

“Brands often look at sound as a tactical tool, which could be using an audio logo,” says Steve Keller, CEO and strategist at the audio consultancy iV, whose clients include Cadbury, Chivas Regal, and Hilton. “They need more of a strategic approach [and to] translate their brand values into a sonic language that can be integrated into their entire communications ecosystem.”

Audio branding is used with more sophistication among European-based brands than American ones, but that’s starting to change, albeit gradually. “When we talk about procurement and efficiencies around audio branding, the conversations [with U.S. clients] are shifting,” Keller says. “We’re beginning to see more of an emphasis on audio branding when there’s a tie-in to costs and ROI.”

New Sounding Boards
Advances in technology are forcing the issue and creating new venues for audio branding. “Targeted audio at point of sale, voice interactivity, sonic fingerprinting, and virtual reality are all providing unique opportunities for brands to use the power of sound to communicate with consumers beyond traditional channels like TV, radio, and social media,” Keller says.

The beauty of audio branding, unlike other media, is that it doesn’t demand much commitment from consumers, but it can send enduring messages nevertheless.

“In order to take in a visual message, the eyes have to be directed at something — a smartphone or TV screen,” says Colleen Fahey, managing director at the audio branding agency Sixième Son USA, whose clients include the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, Michelin, and Huggies. “But a brand’s sound can come from above, behind, and below.”

As the increasing popularity of voice-assistants indicates, audio branding is not confined to music or soundscapes. Podcasts, which are having a renaissance after being in the digital doldrums for several years, are an increasingly popular marketing tool for companies eager to enhance their value via audio.

Take Dell Technologies’ Trailblazers Podcast. The weekly program, which debuted in March, is hosted by Walter Isaacson, former chairman of CNN and acclaimed author of biographies on Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs, who explores digital disruption/innovation throughout various industries.

“It’s audio branding in a different way,” says Liz Matthews, SVP of global brand and creative at Dell. “The audio branding landscape is evolving and introducing new media that marketers can integrate into the campaign mix.”

Dell also taps into music to score its various marketing campaigns. The tech giant’s new branding campaign, for example, features originally orchestrated music.


In a series of 30- and 60-second ads, actor Jeffrey Wright explains how Dell’s products and services have helped to transform companies like GE (for aerospace diagnostics) and Chitale Dairy (for web-connected cows). Each ad ends with Wright voicing the tagline: “Magic can’t make digital transformation happen, but we can. Let’s make it real.”

“It’s an element of gravitas that shows how technology can help drive human progress,” Matthews says, referring to the soundtrack. “Companies need to establish audio guidelines that will help differentiate the brand and use music in a way that’s going to underpin the brand essence.”

Finding the Right Audio Palette
Audio branding is especially effective when marketers select an audio palette that captures the true essence of the company’s qualities. A good illustration is Siemens’ new branding campaign “Ingenuity for life.”

The process began with a repositioning of the brand, says Adam Cockill, head of branding at Siemens, the global technology company with a focus on electrification, automation, and digitalization. “That led to a revitalization of the brand experience, which included the design system and application, of which sound plays a fundamental part,” he notes.

Siemens created the audio for the new positioning by deconstructing each word from the campaign title and communicating its value acoustically. “Ingenuity,” standing for Siemens’ constant drive for innovation, is conveyed through progressive sounds and pulsing rhythm; “for life” is translated through organic and human sounds, like the distinctive female voice singing the brand’s five-note motif. The combination of musical gradients and the human voice forms the company’s new sound logo.

The brand refresh, which debuted in 2016, also includes sound “kits” for several applications, such as advertising, ringtones, and events. All of the sounds derive from the main musical theme. The event kit, for example, features music for going on stage at an event, calling out a break, or setting an appealing background atmosphere.

“On the one hand, we have a library of soundscapes that our colleagues can choose from, depending upon the application and intended effect,” Cockill says. “On the other hand, we also encourage local interpretations to better suit and resonate with specific applications and audiences.”

The baseline “audio brand DNA” for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau includes dynamic horns, piano melody, and voices, says EVP and CMO Andrew Wilson. The score is not only interpreted for multiple projects promoting the city, both at home and abroad, but localized for disparate audiences.

In fact, the “Discover Atlanta” marketing effort, which rolled out in 2015, features eight videos with musical scores interpreted to fit the personality of the city’s different neighborhoods, such as classic piano and glittering chimes for Buckhead and brassy horns and groovy bass guitar for Downtown. Atlanta deploys a similar strategy to promote the city to international audiences, with French accordion for French audiences and bossa nova for the Brazilian market. The videos are distributed via the organization’s website and digital channels and are streamed at the international baggage claim at Hartsfield—Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Wilson says that when it comes to audio branding, many brands remain “mired in a jingle world,” and fail to use the channel holistically. “When you think of everything that’s involved with developing brand position — the colors, the fonts, the messaging points, coordinating all the different [media] channels — why stop short at sound?” he says. “It doesn’t make sense when you put in all that rigor. That’s the opportunity for audio branding: Defining your brand through music and distributing that music through various touchpoints.”

Building Character
As marketers begin to enhance their audio branding efforts, they need to think strategically about how audio is going to propel the story, says Ann Rubin, VP of branded content and global creative at IBM. The most effective use of audio branding depends on the brand and the medium, she notes.

“Everything we do is designed to enable our audience to better understand our brand, and that includes music,” Rubin says. “Audio branding should bring a sense and feel that helps communicate our character and our essence.”

IBM Cloud TV commercials provide a solid example. The ads, which launched earlier this year, are accompanied by Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” a hard rock tune featuring a pulsing bass and ripping guitar.

IBM Cloud/

Juxtaposed with the soundtrack, a voiceover explains the multiple and unique benefits of using the IBM Cloud: “This is a financial transaction secure from hacks and threats others can’t see — this is AI trained by experts in 20 industries. Your industry.” At the end of the ad, as the voiceover intones, “The IBM Cloud is the cloud for enterprise — yours,” Nilsson belts out, “We can make each other happy.”

“The music helps tell the story, communicates what the IBM Cloud can do, and acts as an invitation, creating a relationship between the brand and the viewer,” Rubin says.


Fine-Tune Your Brand

For most branding efforts to succeed, they must command consumers’ undivided attention. To watch an online video, for instance, consumers need to be still and focus their eyes on the images in front of them. When they get messages via Twitter and other social channels, people have to stop in their tracks and actually read the message. But it’s a different story when it comes to audio branding.

“Whatever it is you’re doing, you’re always being influenced by sound,” says Colleen Fahey, managing director at the audio branding agency Sixième Son USA. “You don’t have to ‘listen’ to hear the message. Music can break through in a very natural way, almost like osmosis.”

Indeed, using originally produced sound and/or popular music enables companies to communicate what they would like consumers to think when they encounter their brand and, depending on the execution, cut through the proverbial clutter.

Nonetheless, for many companies, audio branding remains a tough challenge. “It’s hard for marketers to wrestle with music,” Fahey says. “It’s not just about how to convey emotion, but about how to capture the meaning of your brand and get that across to audiences.”

Fahey offers the following tips to help companies develop audio branding efforts and fold them into their overall marketing activities:

  1. Consider the brand in auditory terms. CMOs need to unify their brand with a “system of sounds” that can be distributed strategically via multiple marketing channels, such as branded content, customer-service lines, and events. “Don’t think of audio branding as a jingle,” Fahey says. “It’s not just repetition, with cute lyrics, but a system of sounds that stems from the heart of the brand’s DNA.”
  2. Create a “mood board.” To strengthen their audio branding strategies, marketers should develop a “mood board,” or playlist, to develop the values the company wants to convey via audio, such as leadership, compassion, or financial stability. The mood board should be designed to help inform the creation of a “universal audio theme,” which can then be adapted to specific marketing channels, Fahey says. For instance, the audio or musical medley that consumers hear when they contact a company’s call center should share musical characteristics with the audio people hear when they enter a retail environment. Audio consistency sans rigidity is key.
  3. Cultivate audio branding for the long haul. “An audio brand can last 10 or more years,” Fahey says. “Many of our clients’ brands evolve, requiring that their audio brands be refreshed, but still remain recognizable.” Marketers need to adhere to a discipline in cultivating their audio brand, but must also be flexible. “For TV commercials, you can license music, adding an audio logo at the end to leave an ear print,” Fahey adds. “But it’s better to score ads the way movies are scored, using the brand’s audio DNA, and tailoring the music to emphasize the emotion throughout the arc of the marketing message.” — M.S.
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.