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What is Sonic’s Brand purpose?

In this article, Davide explains what sonic branding means to him and discusses his experiences creating sonic branding packages for several clients.

Sonic Identity, Music Branding, Sonic Branding and Sonic Logos have all adopted various meanings in modern times and can all mean the same thing or be interpreted in entirely different ways. Sonic Branding is an opportunity to create a unique set of notes and sounds that clients and customers will associate to your brand. It triggers emotions, enhances brand recall and gets more attention than visual identity.

Some famous examples include the well-known sonic logos of:

Taking the latter as an example, the ‘jingle’ as they were referred to then of Toyota in Australia was the vocal and musical ‘Oh what a feeling! Toyota’. This led many companies to produce vocal jingles and helped establish the acceptance of a sonic logo that could be used at the end of radio and TV advertisements.

Due to the ubiquity of the ‘jingle’ sonic logo of the late 20th century, companies began to seek more subtle and refined sonic logos that were not as obvious in their branding. The most famous of all was the four-note sting of IBM that helped establish the current design ethos for sonic and sound logos.

My introduction and experience with Sonic Branding.

My first introduction to sonic branding was working as a producer and composer at a London based music production house Delicious Digital. The CEO, who had worked on the sonic identity of the BBC for many years was militant about all Audio being ‘on Brand’. This was unusual for me as this type of focus on branding was usually limited to graphic design agencies. On my first job writing music for the BBC, I was given a mood sheet, or rather a sonic branding guideline document which stipulated everything, from which musical scale to be used, which notes to avoid and what type of instrumentation. This was to ensure any composer could be used and everything would sound like the BBC. Viewers would become emotionally attached to the BBC’s brand through its music and sound. To this day, I have not seen such a well-implemented and adhered to sonic branding package.

Before there were sonic logos, there were jingles.

Today, companies require a unique approach primarily based on modern sound design techniques. There are only so many combinations of notes you can use (particularly using western based music scales), and there are only so many times you can use a piano and guitar before it all begins to sound the same. Hence the reason I think it’s very important to create something that has never been heard before. And the only way to do this is by:

  • Using a confluence of musical notes and unique sound design

  • Steering clear of conventional musical shapes

  • Avoiding piano or guitar

  • Using microphone techniques to record new sounds

  • Recording unconventional sound sources

The issue here is demonstrating the early design stages to a client that may sound too musical or designed. Let’s take an example of a successful sonic logo that I designed which is currently being used by Metro Trains in Melbourne. In this instance, we joined forces with a branding agency called FutureBrand in Melbourne, which was contracted to develop the new branding. We discussed the possibility of having a friendly aural and visual representation of the brand, or a ‘Sound of Melbourne’ instead of standard announcement tones, which will help endear travellers on their network. The first stage involved pitching some loose melodic ideas. However, the client struggled with the idea of having a ‘jingle’ as a sonic logo that could be used as an announcement tone throughout all their advertising and communication. So, we demonstrated other examples currently in use by similar transport networks. Barcelona has a well-recognised Metro sonic logo, as does Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. Providing these industry-relevant examples allowed the client to see the value in having their own multipurpose sonic logo. We now had a clear direction of what type of tone and sound they would buy into.

There were many things to consider early to ensure we didn’t get trapped by selling them something that couldn’t be used effectively. Important things like how we get a sound to work across all environments – a tunnel, an outdoor suburban station, a station with ten platforms and multiple simultaneous announcements! We also needed to consider the frequency of the sonic. It would be heard over a thousand times a day.

To accommodate these considerations, we realised that we needed to create something unique. This realisation led us to design our own synth for the project. A tool that would enable us to create a sound based on some simple sine waves that were easy on the ear, palatable and clear. Although this process took quite a bit of time, it was invaluable towards the project’s outcome.

Once we had the sound, it was time to put together the musical part. Rather than coming up with a sequence of notes, we created a music bed that culminated in a sonic logo. Metro Trains loved the unique approach of the custom-designed synth with the electronic playfulness inspired by the Barcelona and Charles De Gaulle Airport examples.

We presented them with five options, all using the same sound design:
  1. A neutral sound designed logo

  2. An acoustic based logo

  3. An experimental logo

  4. A major key ‘positive’ logo

  5. A typical and obvious logo

We quickly narrowed these down to the shape and sound of the final logo. There were now just two variations, one more resolutely major in key (and more positive) and the other more neutral. Clients naturally want everything to sound positive, so Metro Trains preferred this option. But I felt strongly that the more neutral, less positive version would have more legs and become less grating. To demonstrate this, we recorded a voice-over, simulating an actual announcement in a real environment with real noises and pinged one or two logos playing overtop. It became clear to all of us that the neutral version worked best.

Ideally, you would test the logo across many environments. Unfortunately, like with many jobs, sound can be de-prioritised with so many other things to do! However, we did find out the speaker type and broadcast rates that are typically used and did some testing of the logo ourselves in indoor and outdoor environments. We feel very proud of how well the logo works across all environments, whether in a tunnel in the city loop or outdoors at a suburban station. It remains effective when several trains arrive at once with hundreds of people at a station and equally so on an empty platform with one train.

Making of the Metro Trains Sonic Logo.

Creating the Metro Sonic Logo - samplify

Often when a project is going well, there is a curveball at the eleventh hour. On this job, after everything had been signed-off by the project team, there was a request from the client for a senior executive to provide some input. It was essential that I met with the client at the studio and listened to their ideas. Often an executive will feel they want to ‘watermark’ an important project. This can be critical in ensuring that the client is entirely on board and happy to take ownership of the idea we are selling them. We tried a few different things in the studio, being cautious of straying too far from the ‘feel’ we had been working on. In this instance, the client was happy to defer to my experience and instinct for sound. We agreed to stick with the logo that was signed off. Twelve years later, this simple and effective logo is still working wonderfully across the Metro Trains network and as part of their broader sonic identity.

The critical aspect of designing Sonic Branding.

Find subtlety and nuances that may sound unspectacular but having confidence in your instincts that they fit the project’s purpose. The most significant sign of success with the Metro Trains logo for me is that no one really knows it’s a sonic logo until you tell them. A subtle, subconscious sell is always more palatable.

Many sonic branding agencies face the challenge of competing with a more traditional advertising agency, one that marketing departments within large firms are more familiar with. Recently we proceeded to an advanced stage with a large, established energy company in Australia and had created a sonic logo that demonstrated their environmental awareness, was technologically representative, and unique. Our focus was on creating a sonic logo that could be used in conjunction with advertising campaigns and communications. Whilst many people within the energy company could see the long-term potential of the sonic branding package we proposed, they were overruled by seniors in the company that felt safer sticking with a more traditional advertising campaign. The promise of an award-winning TV and radio advertisement featuring a composer’s emotive storyboard and music is a more conventional and often more palatable brief to many clients. It’s my opinion that in this particular case, the importance of the sonic logo and the opportunity to connect aurally with their customers was overlooked for the convenience of an all-in-one package from an agency that specialised in ads rather than sonic branding.

A recent successful project was working with Push Collective and HCF. Push Collective is a branding agency run by industry stalwarts that see things differently.

We started with easy pure tones to demonstrate a musical feeling without the influence of sound design – a way to lock us down to a series of musical movements, feelings, and notes. Once we established the feel, scale and notes, we experimented with different instrumentation. It wasn’t easy finding the right sounds. The client felt it should be soft and natural whilst unique – nothing involving a synth and nothing too conventional like a piano or guitar. We felt strongly that the human voice was the only way forward, so we began to demonstrate some vocalists. We didn’t get the vocalists to sing the logo, as we know we could have the vocalists interpret the sonic in many ways and didn’t want to influence the client that way. We also steered clear of anything that sounded remotely like a jingle as we knew HCF would hate that! It was all about finding the right voice and feel. Soon we realised that after presenting many vocal options to the client, everything sounded too polished or artistic for the client to relate to (and we respected that), so we went back through our projects and recalled working with a wonderful artist called Christina. She would only use objects around the house as instruments – kitchen utensils, dust bins, lights, etc… We helped her produce an album that was all human sounds. The client instantly loved Christina and her authenticity – we were on! We asked Christina to sing two versions of the logo, the safe and more obvious one that the client had preferred and the left-of-centre one that Push Collective and I preferred. Having an agency that can talk the right language in a genuine but persuasive way is a massive bonus. We got the latter across the line, and the client has continually reported how well it has been received and how well it has performed across all their surveys. It certainly does stand out, and I am confident it will last for years, even if it may have to morph into something more instrument-based and away from the human voices.

How much to charge for Sonic Branding Packages.

Another conundrum faced by those wanting to create sonic branding packages is how much to charge? Given it’s still a fairly niche activity and not widespread it is a difficult thing to quantify. I feel it is important not to have random figures in your head based on the size of a company as that can often come across in a quote.

Having a standardised quoting method helps and this can be based on various factors such as:
  • The number of deliverables (music beds, variations of logo, etc.).

  • The length of time that the client is allowed to use the package (the term).

  • Where they are allowed to use the package (territory).

  • Whether they require below-the-line or above-the-line usage (targeted audience v. mass media).

This allows you to quote for creating the sonic logo and charge for its use. A company that may want you to create music beds and a sonic logo and use them freely across all mediums (TVC, Cinema, etc.) worldwide, and for infinity, will have a larger budget and will be willing to pay a higher licensing fee. In my experience, complete sonic branding packages can range from a few thousand dollars up to one hundred thousand dollars. It is worth considering that music for an above-the-line advertising campaign alone can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

A sonic identity package is tough to create both musically and sonically. It’s hard to remain aligned with the client and hard to demonstrate metrics for something deeply personal and subjective. It’s also hard to get it across the line through many departments, agencies and individuals. A great sonic identity requires a unique approach, a good instinct for what will work and the resilience to try and try again. A sonic identity that works and stands the test of time adds a critical element to brand awareness. Therefore, why having a distinctive sonic identity is so valuable.

A collection of some of our best sonic logos and music branding here.

image of Davide Carbone

By Davide Carbone