Audio Branding: How Sound Can Build Brands

Audio branding can build long-term brands. Author Laurence Minsky joins us on IN CLEAR FOCUS to discuss the theory of audio branding and best practices.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Transcending language and cultural barriers with audio branding. We’re joined by Laurence Minsky, an expert and co-author of the book, “Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand.” Larry discusses the theory and practice of creating entire sonic languages and how they can be leveraged for long-term brand-building. The show notes link to the case studies discussed in the episode.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, a unique perspective on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. While all marketers are likely familiar with visual branding, a growing number of marketers are using palettes of unique sounds and music to support long-term brand-building. Product designers too are leveraging the possibilities of audio to give consumer technology devices friendlier personalities. Researchers have found that music is a language that people all around the world can understand. Certain types of instrumentation and rhythms convey consistent meanings often subconsciously working at a symbolic rather than an explicit level. Audio branding is employed by many companies that compete internationally such as tech firms, Apple and Intel, beauty and skincare giant, L’Oreal, German car manufacturers, Audi and BMW, and their French competitors, Renault and Peugeot. But audio branding is less prevalent among domestic brands, which of course offers a novel way to differentiate from competitors. Our guest today is Laurence Minsky, an expert and co-author of the book, “Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand,” which describes in detail the theory and practice of creating entire audio languages for brands. Laurence Minsky is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Innovation at Columbia College, Chicago and the author of many books on advertising and marketing. He’s also an award-winning marketing strategist, creative director and copywriter focused on creating innovative and effective branding and cross-discipline marketing solutions for many leading brands. Professor Minsky, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Larry Minsky: Thank you for having me. And by all means call me Larry while we talk.

Adrian Tennant: Will do, Larry, thank you. What’s your definition of audio branding?

Larry Minsky: Audio branding is the use of sound that’s ownable by the company, by the brand to reinforce brand attributes. 

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the main reasons marketers need to consider audio branding today?

Larry Minsky: I’ll give you one reason why every marketer needs to consider audio branding today. And that is because of the growth of voice assistants. Right now it’s still in its infancy, but do you really want to leave your brand when there’s no picture, no visual, no colors, no fonts, no anything of the traditional branding sense representing your brand? And you’re leaving your brand up to Alexa or Siri? In Europe where audio branding is much more advanced. You know, the countries are smaller, there’s more languages and it gets really expensive to have a brand in every country and you want something consistent and you want to be able to convey it consistently. In America as we continue to diversify, our populations, that will become an issue as well. But Audio branding is a much quicker way of communicating your brand; sound communicates much faster and sound also helps direct visuals. 

Adrian Tennant: So you mentioned that the practice of audio branding seems a lot more prevalent in European countries than here in the US. Is there any other reason for that, do you think, beyond the language issue? 

Larry Minsky: You know, US marketing maybe is a little bit more hard-sell traditionally, “Buy now!” “Do this!” – all that kind of stuff. European marketing tends to be a little bit more indirect, a little bit more elegant. So, there’s probably an aesthetic area that helps bring it about quicker in Europe. But you know, practically, you do want your brand across cultures, cross borders and sound is much quicker and easier to do that than language.

Adrian Tennant: Now, when hearing you and I talking about audio branding, I’m guessing some listeners may think about jingles, that is advertising slogans that are put to music. But I know you don’t think jingles really qualify as audio branding. Why is that?

Larry Minsky: A jingle was written to carry the words. It goes back to what we just said that in America it was a lot harder sell. So, you know, “call 1-800-whatever,” and they sing it out is a jingle. And so the music was secondary. The sounds were secondary. A lot of those sounds don’t seem to be ownable. Some of them are like Nationwide. That is starting to become an audio brand simply by how they use it. And they’re starting to play around with how they use, “Nationwide is on your side.” But essentially that did start as a jingle. So a jingle can evolve into an audio brand but it is not the same thing. The NBC chimes started as a way to align things and it was a more technical issue but over the years it became part of the audio brand. So, there’s different ways in but the best way is the way you do any kind of branding and that’s to be strategic about it and think about what your brand attributes are and what do you want to convey and then develop the sounds that actually convey it.

Adrian Tennant: Mmm. Now, some brands of course do have sounds associated with them which advertising often supports. So, I’m thinking about, say, the roar of a Harley-Davidson’s engine, there’s the pop of a Snapple lid, and of course, when you start up your Mac computer, there’s a sound that accompanies that. Do you think these qualify as examples of audio branding?

Larry Minsky: Yes. Anytime you use sound to help convey an attribute, it’s an audio brand the snap of a bottle for Snapple pop. You know, you hear it, you’d get reinforced when you’re opening the bottle. So there’s positive reinforcement there, but you could use that in your advertising. You could use that on TV, on radio, on your website, eventually on your voice assistant applications. So anytime you’re using sound to help build your brand, it’s part of audio branding and really should be thought through strategically.

Adrian Tennant: Right. Now, one US brand that has consistently employed music as part of its brand is United airlines, which has used George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” since 1987, I believe, at an annual licensing cost of $300,000. Larry, I know you’re based in Chicago, which is United’s home base. What do you like or dislike about United’s approach?

Larry Minsky: What I like is Gershwin’s song is very adaptable to multiple situations and you still get it. It still reinforces and there’s a lot of positive emotion attached to that and movement and energy and things that convey United Airlines. What I don’t like is really, it’s not ownable by United. Anyone can license that song. It’s now gone into the public domain I believe. And so anyone can use it. It’s better to start with “what do you want to convey?” “who are you?” and then create something that you could own, basically permanently.

Adrian Tennant: In the book, you mentioned Intel as an exemplar of successful audio branding. Those four notes have been around for 25 years and while Intel has modified the instrumentation over the years, those four notes have remained the same. Do you think all brands should aim for this level of discipline when it comes to their audio identities?

Larry Minsky: All branding should be disciplined and if you’re doing it right, strategic and thought through. A brand is not solid where you don’t tweak it over time, you know, the, the best way to maintain a brand is to evolve it slowly, imperceptibly, so it stays up to date and it works in multiple areas, but still conveys values and, and the enduring attributes that you want to convey. Good brands, brands manage or companies that manage their brands spend a lot of time thinking about it and doing it visually. You should do that the same way with sounds. And do think of it as a long-term investment. You don’t see Intel chips when you’re buying, but it is a proof point for all the computers you buy with an Intel chip inside it. And that branding has helped Intel make a name and make it a proof point. What other chips are out there? What comes to mind really quickly and you could see why Intel is so effective because I don’t think a lot of people are going to come up with other chip makers that, you know, give them as much reassurance as an Intel when they hear that little sound.

Adrian Tennant: So Larry, I’m sure you encountered many examples of audio branding as you were conducting your research for the book. Do you have any favorite examples? 

Larry Minsky: One of the examples, for Royal Air Maroc from Morocco really captured the essence of the country. And there’s a lot of different musical styles in Morocco. So they had to bring them all together. And I thought that was a very, very interesting kind of audio brand from the French Open and, and how they use it, I find very interesting as well. It’s not just they have their audio brand that they use when they award the trophies at the end. And then they have whole environments for where you park when you go in retail settings. They even have an audio brand playlist for the athletes when they pick them up to drive them to the venue. So I found that kind of interesting. La Roche-Posay, it’s just an elegant kind of sound and, and really gets the feeling down. So, there are so many different examples out there of audio branding. MasterCard just came up with an audio brand not too long ago. And I do know on at least one scale, the value of their brand increased proportionally because of it. And that was the only thing they changed in their branding was their audio brand and refine their logo a little bit. And it’s just helping the brand differentiate itself today too. MasterCard did it after the book came out, but you could easily Google it or search for it and you could see the success that it has helped them.

Adrian Tennant:  Larry, I believe your introduction to audio branding came from your co-author Colleen Fahey.

Larry Minsky: In a way it did, but my exposure to it actually started earlier than that. I was a chief creative innovator or chief creative officer of a small agency and we had a publicly traded company as a client that had a pickle brand that was falling fast in the marketplace and the company was afraid that that would hurt their stock price. So they brought us in to stop the decline. And in our research we found that our pickle brand tends to get eaten up. A lot of people buy pickles, they eat a few, they put in the refrigerator, they might grab a few more, but eventually the pickle jar makes it to the back of the refrigerator. Pickles get soggy, they throw them out and then eventually maybe a back to school or some other kind of occasion, they’ll buy another jar and the cycle starts over. So we decided to promote the aspect that people love our pickles so much, they’ll eat the whole jar as our benefits. So we positioned it as the emptiest jar in the house. And how do you dramatize empty jars on radio was we decided to use a fork in a glass jar to hear the “ting” of it going in because it’s empty. And our campaign not only stopped a slide of the brand, it turned it around and made it the number one in the markets where it was sold most of its markets and in one market and in fact achieved a 40% share. So I started to get curious about the sound and how it plays in terms of building a brand and I thought that was an audio brand. Then I was working on another book and a collection of essays and Colleen and I, we come from the marketing services promotion firm and she had written an essay a long time ago about considering that as a career. And my publisher suggested that we use it in the book. And so I met with Coleen to modernize that article and she started talking about what she was doing with audio branding. And I learned that it was so much more than just a little logo at the end. It is a whole sound system. And one of the ways, in terms of how to use it, even for a package goods even for or, or any brand, even for a business-to-business brand, about half of Coleen’s agency’s clients – Sixième Son – are business to business firms. And you think of all the different touch points and it’s not just, you know, a consumer radio spot, which is where jingles end up. But think of the sales meeting. You bring all of your people together and, you know, you introduce the CEO with one type of music, you introduce the head of marketing with another type of music and you come across as disjointed to your employees and your employees need to understand the brand just as much as your consumers. And so you could bring a language to this that has full flexibility and, and, but still brings back the core notes so it conveys what they’re about. So you could use it even in an internal setting, such as a sales meeting. You could use it as a ringtone. You could use it on the website and voice assistance eventually, all sorts of things. So it’s really a comprehensive solution. And that’s what I learned when I sat down with Coleen and I said, “we gotta write about this.” And Colleen was doing a lot of writing. She’s a writer unto herself and that’s her background as well. And we collaborated on an article for Harvard Business Review where we looked at one of Sixième Son’s clients and that was the French railroad SNCF, which is one of the most recognizable sounds in Europe is their audio brand. They use it in stations, they use it on the trains when the doors are opening and closing. They use it in their advertising, you name it, it’s used and it’s highly, highly recognizable. And David Gilmore liked it so much he licensed the use of it for one of his songs and so every time that song gets played at reinforces SNCF. So there were so many different uses of it. So we wrote an article for Harvard Business Review on it where we actually went through the evolution of it and you can hear the different sounds in that article if you go on the online version of that article, if you go to it. And from there, we continued writing and you know that there needed to be a book on the subject because people understand it.

Adrian Tennant: One of the things I like most about the book, and I read a lot of marketing books, is the inclusion of pieces authored by branding practitioners such as Michaël Boumendil, who’s the founder of Sixième Son, the first sound design firm dedicated solely to audio branding. Plus you have articles from ad agency, veterans, Ben deSanti and Ken Hicks. But you also include contributions from academic experts, including professor Charles Spence, a cognitive neuroscientist based at Oxford University who explores people’s associations of musical notes with particular aromas. And his article describes really fascinating experiments that pair music with food often with some surprising results. Can you speak to that?

Larry Minsky: Yeah, I’ll give you a very basic thing, but cause audio branding is much more than just being in very tactical sales generating kind of thing. But there was research done in a grocery store chain where they had French wine displayed next to German wine. And on one day they would run German music and people would buy more the German wine. And other days they ran French music and the French wine’s brand would sell more. And people were asked, “well, why are you buying it?” And so, “well this one, this wine is going to pair better with my meal,” and all that kind of stuff. But what they were really doing was being influenced by the sounds, but they weren’t cognitively processing the information and saying, “well, I’m buying this wine because I heard this French song or this German song,” or whatever. It just helps set the mood for that kind of product. And so that was enough. That example might sound a little manipulative. That’s not really what audio branding is about. We’re not here to say, “okay, today you’re going to buy more French wine or more German wine.” But it’s really about reinforcing the brand attributes because if the brand attributes are what make people want to buy the product, they will buy the product or they like it better or I’ll talk about it or they’ll feel better about it. Whatever you need to have done and reinforce the qualities of the brand – it’s why you trust it. And  audio branding can help contribute to the trust factor.

Adrian Tennant: Many of our listeners are familiar with the creative process of designing a visual brand identity – for example, using visual mood boards and then refining designs based on some combination of client feedback and consumer research. Can you briefly explain what the creative process for audio branding looks like?

Larry Minsky: It’s very, very similar. It is. I’m first sitting down and figuring out what, what do you want to convey? What is the brand DNA that you want to send out to the world? And then from there you go into sound moodboards. It could be existing stuff, but you put it together and you hear, well, here’s one direction, here’s another direction, here’s another direction. What’s conveying, what’s working? And then you start composing those kinds of things and for mood boards and it becomes unique. And then you start researching it and you’re saying which one is working and what, what does it say to people when they listen to it? And, and then they refine it. It’s exactly like doing a visual brand. Doing a sound brand, you walk through the same steps except you hear it instead of see it. Really it should be just like figuring out what the visual brand is and what the visual brand promises and how you bring it to life in different aspects should be thought of upfront. In many ways, and this is another benefit is the licensing fees overall are lower. When you have an audio brand, you have all the development. And sometimes it depends on what you do in terms of how you get it, whether it’s licensed from name, audio, branding firm or whether you, you own it all clear out, but you need to make different iterations. But overall it becomes cheaper and easier to manage. So you’re saving money on one end because if you’re doing a lot of TV or doing a lot of radio and you need a lot of sounds, you know, you gotta pay for it.

Adrian Tennant: So do you have a couple of audio branding do’s and don’ts that you’d like to share?

Larry Minsky: I would guess the number one DO is create one and start bringing your sounds together and making them consistent and aligned and working for your brand instead of helping communicate that your brand is disjointed. Do follow a disciplined process. Go do it. Like you would do a visual brand, think it through, do the research, do, do the hard work upfront. Those would be the, in a, in a very short way, the very main dos. DON’T think of it as a jingle thing. Don’t think of it as one-offs. Think of it as a system and do think of it long term. Don’t think of it as a short term solution. It’s an investment in your brand, just like your colors, your fonts, your logo.

Adrian Tennant: Larry, you balance real world advertising practice with a parallel career in academia. In what kinds of ways does one inform the other?

Larry Minsky: Great question. My research, my writing, helps me inform what I do. I hope it helps inform other people, what they do. My teaching keeps me on and my consulting, my working in the field helps bring back, well what are the issues out there today and what can we look at? So what I do research-wise and writing-wise, they all work together.

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. We will of course include links to the examples that we’ve discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS webpage. But if listeners would like to know more about your work, Larry, and either this book or the many other books that you’ve written, where can they find you?

Larry Minsky: You could just go to Amazon and put in my name, Laurence Minsky and go to my author page and there is the complete list of books. My two current books are on Kogan Page and then I have another one on with that just came out on Global Brand Management. So how do you manage a brand that crosses borders? What are the issues, and or crosses cultures? I have another book, The Activation Imperative on how do you align all of the different disciplines to drive people down the path to purchase? 

Adrian Tennant: Larry, thank you very much for being with us today on IN CLEAR FOCUS. It’s a really fascinating topic. Thank you very much for sharing your insights about audio branding with us.

Larry Minsky: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed the discussion. Hopefully, you found it just as interesting and enjoyable as I did.

Adrian Tennant: Thank you. My thanks to our guest this week, Laurence Minsky, co-author of Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand. You can find links to resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked, “Podcast.” Consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player, and if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.


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