It could be argued that maintaining a vibrant audio brand—a distinct musical identity that expresses a product or service's promise, personality, and values at each touchpoint—is, in and of itself, a marketing best-practice. Yet, most US marketers haven't tended to their audio brands, whereas their European competitors—Peugeot, Michelin, AXA, SNCF, and others—have been doing so for years.

It's not too late, however, to catch up to the Europeans.

At the beginning, cultivating a vibrant audio brand is all about defining your brand essence and values. At the end, it's about providing clarity and discipline to your marketing efforts.

And, in between, it's about progressing through all of the key touchstones of any responsible branding initiative: competitive analysis, touchpoint analysis, audience analysis, strategy development, concept explorations, creation, evaluation, and refinement.

Following this branding process will lead you to a distinctive audio identity: a system of sounds and music that will perfectly express your brand values and personality—and evoke a meaningful customer experience at each touchpoint, driving greater sales and profit.

But there are dangers along the way. Here are three common ones:

  1. Personal bias: People might choose music that expresses a strong-willed team member's or boss's tastes—or their personal tastes—rather than the sounds and style that convey the brand's essence and values.
  2. Copycatting: People like to give solutions even though it's more helpful to have them identify problems. So, one might hear, "I want to get music like this piece. How close can I get to it without infringing on their copyright?" The issue? Chances are the example is a popular piece that will soon go out of style. But if the piece becomes a classic, the result will be that you won't be communicating in a distinctive voice.
  3. Predictability: This one is a real gotcha because, disquietingly, the wrong research can actually hurt you. People like music with which they're familiar and they may say positive things about an option that's got a comfortable sound. But a brand may be better off with music that is unexpected—a sound that will break through and become truly "own-able."

The best way to steer clear of those traps is to hold to a clear process for developing your audio brand. Experienced audio branding agencies have developed rigorous methods to keep the team from going off track and to keep everyone focused on the core of the brand and its values, as well as the marketing problems the solution needs to solve.

So what is the process?

If you're now starting to define your company's audio brand—or you want to continue refining it along a better, more predictable path—here are the six steps to take in order to benefit from the best-practices in audio branding.

1. Step back before jumping in

The process of defining your brand's DNA requires a willingness to probe its structure to tease out those distinguishing qualities and identifiers that make it unique.

In partnership with your audio branding strategist, you'll need to answer a number of key questions: What does your brand stand for today, and what do you want it to represent in the future? How does your brand differentiate itself today in ways that are interesting to your customers and prospects? How are your competitors differentiating themselves? Do they have audio brands? If so, what sounds characterize them?

The better the team is able to answer those questions at the outset, the more likely your resulting audio identity will ring true with your customers and prospects, as well as set itself apart from competitors.

2. Identify your brand's audio touchpoints. There are more than you think.

Quickly move beyond advertising. Audio branding should augment your sales videos, ATM experience, booth at an expo, and intros and outros of your instructional videos. Brand experiences can also occur as a credit card is swiped at the gas pump, as a QR code is scanned from a flyer, or as a key is turned in the ignition.

What's more, the sound your app makes when it's opened, the chime ringing when a customer enters your offices, the hold music a customer hears when she's on the phone with customer service... all provide excellent opportunities to distinguish your brand.

3. Think beyond licensed music

Meet your customer in new, subtle, and exciting ways to constantly serve and bring them home to the brand and what it represents. Thinking beyond licensed music is what will make your audio brand stand out and put it on the right track toward uniquely and memorably conveying your key attributes.

Just think: No longer are you licensing Brian Eno for your on-hold music, "We Are the Champions" for your company meeting, a pop song for your advertising, and stock music for a video news release.

4. Use audio 'mood boards' during the concept phase

These are little sound snippets that will help you determine the textures, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and instrumentation that convey your brand.

Your goal: To create truly distinctive audio signals and compositions.

Then, once you have the direction, you need to test it, refine it, and create the adaptations that ensure that each expression corresponds to the behavioral objective of the touchpoint where it's intended to be used.

After all, although your brand's touchpoints are unified by the melody, rhythm, texture, harmony, and instrumentation, their expressions may need to vary—just as your visual brand's expressions might need to be horizontal and vertical, in color and black and white, huge on a sign and tiny on a business card. So you need to think about audio variations at the beginning.

5. Launch with authority

The French train system, SNCF, now boasting one of the world's most successful audio brands, launched in all stations simultaneously, and it enforced strict guidelines until operations embraced the new system.

You should do the same. After all, a soft launch will give you soft results.

6. Make sure you keep your audio style guide handy

Just as you manage your visual brand, you need to manage your audio brand, too.

The style guide should include a detailed explanation of your audio brand, and it should identify its adaptations as well as the rules of use, so your teams will know how to get the most out of it. Share it with internal teams and external partners.

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How to Get the Most Out of Best-Practices in Audio Branding

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