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When you think of the world’s most iconic brands, you think of the logos, the labels, the slogans, and the commercials. Louis Vitton’s print, Subway’s “Eat Fresh”, Allstate’s Mayhem character. Prominent brand assets tend to be visual assets.

So how does a company carry over their valuable brand assets onto an audio platform – such as smart speakers – in a meaningful way?

Through Sonic Branding, of course. The most talented sound engineers can turn sounds into signatures. Signatures that are as recognizable as a big fat swoosh on the side of a shoe.

When you hear the pop, pour, and fizzle of a liquid you think Coca Cola. Or the chorus of “Ba Da Ba Ba Ba”, it’s McDonald’s. I can run through dozens of iconic sounds, from the sound that Netflix makes when the app opens to the distinct wavering of a Peter Frampton talk box to the rising tide of the THX Sound at movie theatres.

This is Sonic Branding.

Sonic Branding is nuanced and hidden. It’s rarely as obvious as a logo. And in many ways can be subliminal.

From my research, “sonic branding for smart speakers” is practically nonexistent. The idea hasn’t really reached the conversation around voice assistants and audio-first platforms – probably because there are bigger fish to fry.

However, if Alexa and Google Assistant really are the platforms of the future, then sonic branding is going to be one of the most important aspects of building experiences and standing out from the pack on these devices.

Sonic Branding is everything on the radio. Should smart speakers reach the mass ubiquity of radio, then just like radio, sound signatures will be a way of getting ahead.

These are the main focuses of sonic branding:

  • Brand Anthem
  • Audio Logos
  • UX Sound Design
  • Artist Partnerships

Brand Anthem

“1-877 Kars 4Kids. K-A-R-S, kars for kids. 1-877-Kars-4Kids. Donate your car today.” If you listened to the radio between 2004 and 2017, then I’ll bet you know the exact tune and cadence of that jingle. One reporter called this jingle an “assault on the senses”. SNL, Family Guy, Will & Grace are just a few shows that have used the jingle as comedic material.

Jingles, better known as Brand Anthems, appeal to our dopamine centers and do a phenomenal job of getting stuck in our head. The Germans refer to them as an Ohrworm – which translates to Ear Worm. It burrows itself deep in our head until we find ourself unconsciously humming the tune all day long.

Similarly, chart topping pop songs have the Orhworm written in their DNA.

Brand Anthems are great for advertising. But how will the Brand Anthem adapt to the smart speaker platform – where there aren’t clear cut ad slots like there are on radio?

Not to mention, popular podcasters would never let a jingle tarnish the audio aesthetic of their 60-minute immersive episodes. Brand Anthems are a huge part of sonic branding, but how will they be reimagined in the smart speaker format?

Audio Logos

The second most recognizable sound on Earth at 90% recognition, second only to that of a baby’s cry, is Intel’s Audio Logo.

There’s a great deal of psychology put into Audio Logos. For instance, audio mnemonics are the practice of using sounds to create or recall memories. And skeuomorphism is using sound to mimic something in the real world.

The result is an inner anticipation that is built from the 20th Century FOX drum roll. Or the typewriter tapping when clicking keys on your iPhone.

Your audio logo may never reach the distribution of the Nokia ringtone – which in 2009 was heard 1.8 billion times a day worldwide. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to your sonic brand.

UX Sound Design

How is a user further immersed into your app, your website, or your experience through sounds? That’s the question that UX Sound Design answers. Taking cues from the Audio Logo and the overall brand pallet, UX sound design captures people further into that emotional state you’re gunning for.

Video games are the best place to look for UX Sound Design. From the upbeat tempo in Zelda to the ominous peculiarity in Halo, these sound experiences encapsulated a young QuHarrison into these games, literally blocking out the entire world around me.

The Nintendo Switch’s library of console sounds is pretty fascinating. You get to see how an entire product uses sounds.

When it comes to Sonic Branding on smart speakers, UX sound design is the most obvious vertical to pursue. For storytelling apps and games on Alexa, this will be important. But I’m interested in seeing how other experiences – such as news briefings and work apps – incorporate UX Sound Design.

Artist Partnerships

Lastly, it’s important to realize that you don’t necessarily have to create something from scratch. Sounds exist in the world that have already influenced us and just need to be found and paired with your experience.

If you played the intro to Alan Parson Project’s Sirius/Eye in the Sky for a million Chicago residents, I would bet everything I’m worth that more people would recognize it as the theme song for the Chicago Bulls starting lineup than by the song’s name. Any time the song comes on, I can practically hear them announce Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, or any of my other favorite Bulls.

Ryan

That’s a powerful instance of sonic branding. They licensed a sound and made it theirs. They matched the mood with what they wanted to convey. And most importantly, they stuck with it.

Talk to the Experts

In his TEDx Talk, Steve Keller describes two incredible studies on the effect of audio:

  • At a wine shop, when French music was played, patrons purchased French wine 77% of the time. When the music switched to German, 73% of the wine purchased was German.
  • In Las Vegas, eliminating that distinct slot machine sound (coins dropping and wheels turning), revenue dropped by 24%.

I shouldn’t have to convince you any further that audio affects us in so many ways. From resurfacing memories, to changing our emotions, to creating an action in us. If you’re planning on taking a serious leap into smart speakers, I’d encourage you to speak with the Sonic Branding experts. Listen and Man Made Music were a few popular ones I came across.

Sonic branding is currently only used by music producers, multi-billion dollar companies, and ad agencies. But as the investment in smart speakers continues and the audio platforms become more prominent in daily life, so too will our need to remember our sonic experiences. Sonic Branding is the way that will happen.

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