The satisfying “click” as you unlocked one of the old iPhones, the classic roar of the MGM lion before a film begins, the unmistakable “ba-da-ba-ba-baaa” of McDonalds. These sounds are all embedded in us, and immediately make us think of the companies associated with them, and that’s all thanks to sonic branding; the process of capturing the identity and story of a brand through sounds and music. Alex Kahl unpacks our Pavlovian relationship with sound, and explores how agencies are harnessing that power to tell stories and bring brands to life.
Cover illustration by Mariano Pascual.
It’s a Sunday evening. You’re on the sofa, a steaming mug of tea in your lap, the glare of the TV filling the dark room with blue light. You press a button and see the red ribbon “N” of Netflix unfurl on the screen, accompanied by that familiar “ta-dum” sound. It’s a sound most of us have heard countless times. But have you ever wondered what that sound is? Where it came from? How it came about? Well, to use that specific example, that three-second-long “ta-dum” was created over six months of hard work by hundreds of people, spearheaded by Academy Award-winning sound designer Lon Bender.
“I got a phone call out of the blue from Todd Yellin, who was a VP at Netflix at the time,” Lon tells me. “He said we’ve been struggling to get this sonic logo nailed for months, and I told everyone you could fix it.” Lon explains that Netflix didn’t want the sound to appear too corporate; they wanted it to be quirky, they wanted to make something whereby if you heard it in the next room you’d know something exciting was happening. They wanted an emotional reaction, for people to connect to it. “We tried vocalists, instrumentalists, choral stuff, voices saying ‘Netflix’ and laughing, random sound effects, even the sound of a goat bleating,” Lon says. The challenge they faced was that this sound had to be appropriate to precede comedies, dramas, action films or any other genre. In the end it was the sound of Lon banging his wedding ring twice on an oak cabinet in his house that would inspire the final sound. It was augmented with some drums and a few guitar chords, and that was that. “Ta-dum.”
Nowadays, that sound has, to many, become synonymous with a time of leisure and relaxation, and because it’s played every single time we watch something on Netflix, that synonymy is only increasing with time. Like Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to expect to be fed when it was subject to a certain stimulus, we’ve been conditioned to associate this sound with entertainment, and so Lon and the team’s creation has been able to go around in a circle of its own success.
The Netflix “ta-dum” is one of the most famous examples of “sonic branding”: the process of associating songs or sounds with a brand, whether in the case of a “sonic logo” or the act of composing, supervising, or selecting the songs used in adverts. It can even be something as small as creating the little “ding” or “click” you hear when you press a button in an app. It’s a side of marketing that many people won’t necessarily be familiar with, but it’s one that’s being given more and more attention by companies big and small. And for good reason; in their 2020 study titled “The Power Of You,” the data experts at Ipsos found that sound is by far the most impactful asset when it comes to having “strong branded attention,” far more powerful than celebrities, fonts, colors, or logos. And yet, it’s not an asset that’s always used to its full potential.
“It’s one of the most powerful but underused tools we see in marketing,” says Niall Rogers, the Founder and Executive Producer of music company Birdbrain. “For something so pivotal and powerful in terms of how it can affect mood and behavior, it’s a real missed opportunity not to give it the time and thought it deserves.” Indeed, most of us will be very aware of the profound effect sound can have on the mind. Just as smelling the perfume worn by a past partner can take us back in time, certain songs or sounds can bring memories flooding back. From the satisfying click as you unlocked one of the old iPhones to the tone as you receive a new WhatsApp message, we tend not to realize how embedded sounds are in our psyche.
The digital age has allowed this form of marketing, which was once largely an afterthought, to take center stage. Jingles have been around for decades, but with music streaming services, smartphones, apps, and podcasts, the possibilities of the medium are growing daily. All that, along with research studies like the one above that illustrate the impact these sounds can have on the consumer, brands are catching on. They’re beginning to harness that power, and they’re looking to sonic branding agencies to help them do it.
Example songs from MassiveMusic's Brand Attribute Sound System, and the values they represent
A sonic branding team will begin their research with the brand’s history and identity, alongside a look at what their customers want to hear or are listening to, and all of this is then combined with what the brand wants to be communicating. “They might come to us and say ‘this is what we used to be and this is what we want to be’,” says MassiveMusic’s Head of Production Tom Tukker. “From there, it can be as simple as a major chord being happy and a minor chord being sad,” says Massive’s Creative Strategy Director Marijn Roozemond. “Not everyone loves ‘Happy’ by Pharrell, but you can’t really deny that it has that happy factor. And that’s what we’re trying to uncover for brands. If they want to be soothing and calm and family friendly, there’s truths in the music world that we can borrow in shaping that identity. That’s what I find so interesting: this association between emotions and music is not always as subjective or individual as you might think.“Neuroscience shows that connecting emotion to an experience encodes the experience in the long-term memory, and that emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention.”
A brand’s core values are key to the process, and with that in mind the folks at MassiveMusic created the Brand Attribute Sound System. It’s a tool that takes the values a brand wants to encapsulate and produces a short musical track that’s supposedly associated with them. For its creation, 500,000 consumers were surveyed and asked to listen to over 300 bespoke audio tracks and rate them based on 85 brand values. From those results, Massive got the basis for an algorithm, and then supplied it with another few thousand tracks. Of course, with so many people involved on both the brand and the agency sides of these projects, there can be a lot of opinions and preferences crossing paths. This tool takes away some of that subjectivity that can sometimes hold up the process. Of course, Massive’s process isn’t completely mechanized: the tool is simply a means to an end, and the Massive team only uses its results as a pointer for the direction they’ll take in their own composition.
These sonic branding cases are at their most interesting, though, when the brand’s identity goes beyond these one-word values. “Every brand wants to be instigating, uplifting, happy, colorful, inclusive, but behind that there are brand stories and a heritage usually that makes them unique,” says Tukker. “It works best when we see brands as these larger than life entities, and it’s not just a jingle or a bing bong,” says Roozemond. “That these brands are alive and have their own tone of voice. We’re not just making a sound for a brand, we’re trying to bring something inanimate to life.”
Simon Robinson of sound and music branding company Pitch & Sync agrees, and admits that they often have trouble with the one-word values many brands want to work within. They would much prefer to have more space to explore things sonically instead of forcing the endless creativity of music into the constraints of a value, as Simon says, “rather than standardize the parts of music that make up the magic, the magic you shouldn’t allow yourself to understand,” he says. “That’s separate from the more common process. It’s about trying to use music in a scientific way to tell a brand’s story, and it might not necessarily be connected to their supposed values, but it’s about bringing their story to life. It’s more about the storytelling of music.”
A great example of this came when MassiveMusic worked with Panadol. The creative potential of the project opened up when they stopped seeing it as a medicine or a tablet company, and instead saw it as a “healing” brand. They worked with music psychologists to figure out which sounds could reduce pain. “We can’t say the music heals people, but it has been proven that the 15 minute track (also because it takes 15 minutes for Panadol to take effect) can help you if you’re having a migraine,” says Roozemond. They went on to make immersive, spatial mixes using the sound, which were then played at in-person activations in major cities. “And that’s the story of the brand,” explains Tukker. “You can talk about values, but that’s not the story. The story here was that Panadol can help people, and that’s where we find our purpose.”
On a similar note, Pitch & Sync worked with a sound therapist to try to create the “most relaxing track in the world” for Radox (best known for their scented shower and bath products) some time ago. The resulting track “Weightless” by Manchester band Marconi Union was voted one of TIME Magazine’s 50 greatest inventions of that year. “I come from a psychology background so I’m a believer in the sweet spot of the physiological effects of music and trying to explain that and understand why music makes us feel certain ways,” says Robinson. “That world of the power of music is just mind-blowing, and that’s what we’re focusing on. We’re a believer in the physiological effect that music has. And if you can harness that for your clients, well…”
And, just as Massive decided to focus on Panadol as a healing product rather than its values, and Pitch & Sync helped to paint Radox as a relaxation company rather than a shower gel maker, Birdbrain saw Toyota not as a company creating cars, but as a company creating movement. This idea of movement, of pushing forwards and never standing still, came to define the entire musical approach to the work, which was defined by unexpected twists and new takes on classic genres.
Before joining MassiveMusic, Tukker was previously studying at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, with a total focus on “making hits.” Since being in this side of the business, though, he’s seen that “if you zoom out completely, you can do anything with audio. Not even music. Anything. If you position it well and produce it well then it can be recognizable or instigating.”
The gap between producing music in the traditional sense and creating the sonic identity of a brand is simply not as big as you might think. The possibilities are just as endless, and the stories told are often just as vivid and distinct. The fact that someone like Lon Bender—who’s won awards working on the sound for blockbuster films like “Drive,” “Braveheart” and “The Revenant”—is still just as passionate and excitable when working on a short, two-second logo for a brand, speaks volumes. “Every time you combine multiple sounds together it’s like working with color,” he tells me. “You have yellows and blues and reds, this whole palette of colors. And you can always find new ways to combine them. Netflix wanted their logo to be a moment in space, a moment in time, where you could enjoy the leisure and relaxation of being entertained. There’s a multitude of choices on every project, and that’s one of the magical things about not just the world of film sound but also sonic branding. You’re creating these worlds that nobody can see, they can just hear it and feel it, and hopefully find some memories from their own life in the process.”