What is Audio Branding?

“Marketers who don’t understand the power of music will simply be left behind.” – Mary Dillon, CMO McDonald’s

Sonic branding used to be a luxury, but now it is a necessity.” –Rita Clifton, Chairman Interbrand

Using Sound Purposefully

Audio branding is the practice of expressing your brand identity and enhancing your brand experience with sound: music, voices, sound effects, and any combination of these. It is the aural component of branding, and it encompasses a wide range of strategies and tactics, from audio logos, product sounds, and voice-overs, to music-download websites, on-hold music and messaging, and acoustic art installations—all of which harness the evocative and expressive power of sound to do two things:

1. Communicate your company’s unique identity in a way that cuts through the clutter to form a memorable, emotional connection

2. Enrich your customer experience in ways that engage your audience on a deeper level, transforming impersonal transactions into human interactions

Aural Experience Design

Your audience is listening. And what they hear can have a profound impact on how they feel about your brand. Yet, most companies do not have an Aural Experience chapter in their brand book. Or guidelines that specify what type of music to use or voice talent to hire.  As a result, there is often a disconnect between what customers see—a consistent look across all touch points—and what they hear—no recognizable “sound” from one touch point to the next.  

Audio branding is designing for the ears: being mindful that your audience’s aural experience matters, and purposeful about how you use sound and music to express your humanity, elicit the ideal emotional response in your audience, and deliver on your brand promise.

Expressing Your Soul

Sound has the evocative and expressive power to communicate your essence more effectively than any logo or carefully crafted message. It is the universal language of emotion, requiring no explanation or translation. And it affects us on a very personal level, stirring up meaningful associations and acting on our physiology to produce intense feelings and even alter our heart and breathing rates.*

Sound also has the advantage of economy: a single measure of music—the right notes, rhythm, harmony, and instrumentation—speaks volumes about who you are as an organization and what you stand for, in the same way that your personal CD/record collection or Spotify playlists reveal so much about you as an individual—your personality, your history, your values, and your sensibilities.

Audio Identity

Your identity can be expressed sonically in a variety of ways, but to be effective it must be authentic and recognizable across all touch points. To accomplish this, your brand sound must be clearly defined so that everyone involved with the creation of your brand experience—particularly, decisions about sound and music—is on the same page sonically.

An audio identity is a detailed prescription for the audible expression of your brand personality, values, attitudes, ideals, and aspirations. It is the audio chapter of your brand guidelines, and it enables you and your team to reach consensus on decisions about sound and music based on the same objective criteria.

A Universal Language

We are all attuned to the “pre-language” of music from a very early age, and we’re quite adept at interpreting its meaning.*** In fact, the “consistent perception of emotions in music is natural and effortless for the majority of listeners” (Juslin and Sloboda 114). It seems that specific tones, melodies, rhythms, and harmonies have universal connotations, so we all understand them to mean basically the same things.

This is great news for brand builders because it means there’s a rich well of emotionally evocative raw material you can draw from to express specific brand attributes and strike a meaningful chord with your audience. What’s more, it’s a resource largely untapped by the branding world; those brands who tap it first stand the greatest chance of staking out a unique claim in the “sonisphere.”

Sound is also particularly effective because it works without our having to pay close attention to it, making it an ideal mode of communication in today’s frenetic, media-saturated world. Audio is also inherently scalable and can be delivered virtually anywhere, especially since most new technologies have sound capability built right in.

*One study found that a lullaby played in sessions lasting from 30 minutes to 2 hours markedly decreased the subjects’ heart rates and caused their breathing rhythms to became synchronized with the rhythm of the music (Kneutgen 1970, cited in Juslin, Patrik N., and John A. Sloboda. Music and Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

**Harley-Davidson tried to patent its “legendary” exhaust sound in 1994.

*** “By the age of five we’re all musical experts, so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us,” says cognitive psychologist Dr. Daniel