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What's the 'Return on Sound'? Build Long-Term Emotional Equity by Applying Sound Strategically

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We've been hearing it forever. The youngest and oldest among us can hum it: N-chime, B-chime, C-chime.

NBC has built a unique, emotional branding platform, so to speak, with the three simple chimes that have represented the brand for decades—eight of them.

That's an impressive run. Perhaps even more impressive is what those notes are worth in dollars and sense. What would they fetch if, let's say, NBC were to auction them off? Millions? Tens of millions? More? Undoubtedly it's worth a lot more than it cost to create.

Every organization that communicates with sound—in advertising, online, digital, retail spaces, call centers, events, products, etc.—has some lessons to glean from NBC and others like them.

Budgets may be tight and long-term planning may feel out of reach, but a few simple principles can help lay the groundwork for long-term brand value.


Fortunate to have been involved with large-scale sonic identity systems for global brands, I've seen (heard) music and sound create significant long-term brand power. That effect comes by design, and it starts with a few questions.

1. What's your return on sound?

In 2006 the top 100 US advertisers each spent between $150 million and $2 billion on sound-enabled media (TV, radio, Internet), and millions more in unmeasured media (events, call centers, etc.).

Each of those brands invests heavily enough in music and sound that it should expect a little mileage—even a hint of long-term brand value—in return. We expect that from our visual identity and integrated branding efforts, and we should expect it from the spending we put into sound.

For example: I'm a huge fan of the Daniel Lanois track that Kia Motors uses in one of its current commercials. It's a beautiful, stirring track that's amped with harmony and allure.

As much as I personally enjoy it, it doesn't grow sustainable mindshare. First, it's borrowed equity. Kia doesn't own that music license outright... it'll perform its temporary campaign role and eventually disappear. Second, the automaker isn't leveraging this music in other touchpoints—Kia's internet, 800 number, and dealerships lack any identifiable sonic coherence.

Of course nobody wants an incoherent brand, but that's unfortunately what many brands are paying for.

Contrast that with NBC's chimes or the iconic United Airlines composition (Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue), which is instantly recognizable in whole or in part and has spoken for the brand for decades across a variety of customer touchpoints.

Similarly, McDonald's sing-songy I'm Lovin' It signature is recognized by 93 percent of the people exposed to it. This is music and sound that's globally identifiable and works hard as a brand investment.

"We're not advertising more," said Larry Light, McDonald's global marketing officer recently after its launch. "What we have increased substantially is the effectiveness of the advertising...when you increase relevance, it sticks in people's minds."

2. Do you sound as unique as you are?

Great brands inspire us. They solve problems, they make meaning. Many of us like to believe we're out to change the world in one way or another. Yet most brands sound surprisingly alike: generically upbeat, harmlessly acceptable, and usually forgettable.

Pick up the phone and dial your company's support line. Listen to the music your company's playing at its sales, customer, or partner events. Check out your online product demos. Pay attention to your retail music. Are your brand's intentions made audible?

Back to that issue of investment vs. expense: As with McDonald's, music and sound provide brand value when they can identify their owner and articulate its values in a way that's unique, unmistakable, fully ownable and worth protecting.

Most of us know the sound of Intel—dun dun dun dun!—but we do we really have an idea of what a microprocessor even does? Intel invests billions each year on its Intel Inside program because it helps make this conceptually fuzzy ingredient brand relevant to everyday consumers. Today that brand sound communicates an understood meaning that few other ingredient brands can match.

Chalk it up to a plan that began long ago and is likely to stick around for a while.

3. What's your emotional identity?

We humans are naturally wired for sound. Daniel Levitin explores that idea in his book This is Your Brain on Music: "Our neuroimaging studies show amygdala activation to music.... Repetition, when done skillfully by a master composer, is emotionally satisfying to our brains, and makes the listening experience as pleasurable as it is."

Oliver Sacks takes it further in his Musicophelia: "Music doesn't represent any tangible, earthly reality. It represents things of the heart, feelings which are beyond description, beyond any experience one has had. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical...is conveyed very powerfully in music."

Emotional design taps into a brand's inherent personality and brings it to life in ways that perfectly rational concerns can't. Features, pricing and benefits are great, but Apple's startup sound, the Yahoo yodel and the THX signature reach us on a much deeper level—they're emotional beacons for the brand, and they play a key role in how we feel about (and what we buy from) these companies.

Compare these to the Southwest Airlines "ding," or Honda's recent "knock knock" guy— two successful but emotionally empty mnemonics. They're great at identifying a brand on television, but lacking emotional weight they fail to communicate a brand's personality or work in other customer experiences.

Sonic power thrives in the product experience. When you hear a Harley rolling down the street, a can of Pringle's chips popping open, or the harmonic hum of a Sonicare toothbrush, you're having high-touch interactions with a brand.

These small moments are valuable channels for communicating those sometimes holy, sacred, and wonderful brand intentions.

4. How elastic is your brand?

We're aware of the shifting brandscape. Brands live everywhere, digital media is ubiquitous, and the future won't get any simpler.

Useful sonic identities are built to scale for a variety of touchpoints and contexts—from television to software to retail environments, for example—without any costly or time-consuming retrofitting.

Just as with a visual identity program, a strong sonic identity is also more of an elastic system than a collection of catchy sonic logos—it's designed with enough musical flexibility to address multiple brands, sub-brands, constituencies, market groups, and regions.

Organizations that approach sound with intention today will have a system in place for tomorrow—one that amplifies the emotional power of the brand without the challenges presented by changes in technology or cultural nuance, because they'll have anticipated them in advance.

Moving forward

It's easy to assume that these principles apply mostly to advertising on television and radio. But that's the proverbial tip of the iceberg: The goal is to build a platform from which the rest of the organization's brand experiences will grow. As it seeds, grows and strengthens itself, so grows the positive association—if it's properly cared for.

Internal brand organizations and their external partners carry the burden for creating and communicating the essence of a brand. With some thoughtful planning and steady vision, they can help their organizations create the emotional impact and economic value that NBC and others like them have accomplished.

It need not take long to build, but the benefits can last for decades. 


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Noel Franus is managing director for Sonic ID (sonicid.com), a sonic branding and identity consultancy in Portland, Oregon and London. He writes regularly on sonic branding and identity at intentionalaudio.com and sonicid.com. 

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