Audio Branding – Can it Really Be Achieved?

March 20, 2009 by  Filed under: Branding 

Distinctive product design, colours and logos have been used to help brand recognition for a long time. Now some companies are trying to appeal to our hearing as a stimulator and brand identifier. How are they succeeding?

Audiovisual media, particularly films and TV series, are an enormously important vehicle for manufacturers to gain widespread brand recognition.

Visual branding predominates

Visible brand cues abound. We all know how car makers are competing to place their products in films, how film heroes glance at their watches with the manufacturer’s logo clearly visible, how drinks are served from bottles with the labels in plain sight.

Yet, some studies suggest that sound is between 75 and 90% more important than pictures or words. Because sound links directly to both the rational and emotional sides of our brain, many high-visibility brands have tried to capitalise on this finding. So far, their success has been varying.

Audio branding must combine technology and marketing

Product-related sound effects, jingles and audio signatures have been around for a while, but being an attempt to artificially connect a certain sound with the brand, they do not represent a genuine brand sound. That is why I’m leaving them outside of the scope of this article.

What I’m talking about is sound that comes from the product itself or its use.

While the sound of opening a beer can, for example, is a definite audio cue, it is only generic. The sound doesn’t evoke a mental image of a certain beer, it’s just beer. Or it could be a soft drink, the listener cannot hear the difference. Similarly, the snap of the safety lid of a soup jar, while distinctly related to a certain product group, cannot be associated with any particular brand of soup.

Mobile phone manufacturers have tried to establish an audio presence in our minds by installing clearly recognisable, unique ringtones as default in their handsets. Yet these can be changed by the users, and many do so, after which the uniqueness is gone.

Harley-Davidson has calibrated its engine tone to become a trademark. They litigated for seven years to copyright the sound – although with no success in the end. Ford is busy developing hallmark sounds: a distinctive thud of a car door when being closed, unique warning chimes and even digitising the sound of a ’68 Mustang and using it to tune the new Mustang’s exhaust system to produce exactly the same sound as in the film Bullitt.

Steps in the right direction

These are clearly steps in the right direction, although I must say I’m a little sceptical about the man-in-the-street being able to distinguish the sound of a Mustang passing by from any other vehicle with a similar type of engine. Associating the thud of a closing car door with a certain make of car is even more difficult.

There are, however, some brands that are closer to the goal than others. Take Subaru cars, for example. The boxer engine used on them has a distinct sound that doesn’t require a trained ear to be distinguished from inline or V engines. Then again, all boxer engines probably sound pretty much the same.

Having done a quick mental “brand sound search” in my brain, the product that comes closest to really owning a particular sound is the flip-top Zippo lighter. Intentionally or purely by chance, its mechanism makes an unmistakable sound. When you are watching a Hollywood film the next time, pay attention. What is particularly ingenious about this is that the product does not even have to be in sight.

What other brands can you think of that possess a unique sound – one that can’t be confused with any other product?

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