When you think of branding, you might think of the name, the color scheme, and all the visual aspects that go into developing a strong brand. However, branding isn’t always visual. Sound can be an equally effective part of a brand. Would brands like Lancome or Giorgio Armani have the same effect if their perfume ads used a voice with a thick Southern drawl? When you see phrases such as “I wish I was an Oscar Meyer wiener,” or “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there,” do you say them, or do you sing them? Sound can be an excellent tool for setting the tone of the brand and making the brand memorable.
The Wide World of Brand Sounds
Branding sounds go beyond commercial jingles. Sound branding can be present in the advertisements, the environment, or the products themselves. Wheeler notes ten different types of brand sounds: some specific to a product category while others applicable to any brand.
Motors: I’m not a car enthusiast, and if you asked me to distinguish one motor from another, I would have absolutely no clue. But some people do love cars and bikes, and the sound of a motor can be a distinctive part of their brand. Just the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is enough to drive fans of the brand wild, and Harley-Davidson specifically engineers its engines to make its signature sound.
Retail Environments: In the mid-2000s, people had a legitimate fear of entering a Hot Topic store. Part of it was the dark environment, part of it was the intimidating gothic fashion, but a major reason was the intense metal and newly popular screamo music. While the music drove some away, it welcomed others, and complemented the shopping environment of Hot Topic.
Background music sets the tone of a retail store. For some stores, like Hot Topic, the music is an intense part of its branding. For others, it’s a subtle sound that subconsciously effects customers, like playing smooth jazz in a coffee shop.
Jingles: I’m a bit old-school when it comes to music. I listen to a local radio station that plays classic rock on my commute, and there is an almost unbearable amount of commercials. But some of the jingles that play on the commercials stick with me to the point that I can sing along with them and recite phone numbers and business names that I would have otherwise forgotten.
Jingles work for small and large businesses alike and can even affect future branding if catchy enough. Modern Kit-Kat ads incorporate their “Give me a break” jingle without the words, but it still remains a recognizable part of Kit Kat’s branding.
Signals: There’s a joke that when a default iPhone ringtone goes off in a store, everyone with an iPhone will check their phone. While it’s a joke, it is rooted in reality. Those default ringtones are still an integral part of iPhone’s brand. These signals can be anything: the way an alarm clock sounds, the booting up noise of a computer, or even the signal at the end of a washing machine’s cycle. They’re all part of the brand identity.
Websites and Games: Lately I’ve been into a video game called Overwatch. In this game, you capture or defend points from an enemy team. When you win a point, it plays a small victory sound, and when you lose a point, it plays a small but depressing defeat sound. Even though the sounds last no more than two seconds, they evoke an emotional response in the player. These emotional responses heighten user experience, which ties into the goal set forth by the brand.
Talking Products: Siri, Alexa, and Cortana all have an automated female voice (unless you’re like me and Siri has a British male voice, but that’s beside the point). These voices are still distinguishable from one another and are now considered voices of the brand. Toys like Tickle-Me-Elmo or Bop-It have distinct voices that wouldn't be confused for any other. With talking products, branding is distinct even at an early age.
Spokespersons: I will never, ever forget the voice of a woman from a commercial for local car dealership near my hometown. She had a shrill, nasal voice and a thick southern accent, and at the end of every commercial, she would say, “At Dow Autoplex, seeing green is saving green!” But everyone knew the commercial, and it actually benefitted Dow Autoplex because their name recognition was high across northeast Texas.
Most companies tend to go for a voice that’s more pleasant while still memorable. Lincoln uses Matthew McConaughey’s slow, ultra-cool voice to set a tone for their brand while Yoplait uses upbeat and friendly Lisa Kudrow to voice their commercials.
Recorded Messages: I like to think my voicemail does a good job of representing myself as a brand: direct, friendly, and with just a bit of humor. Brands put a lot of resources into ensuring recorded messages convey the brand. The New York subway system uses a clear and easy to understand voice to ensure passengers know when trains are arriving and to remind passengers to stay away from the tracks. The Country Music Hall of Fame uses voice recordings of country music legend Dolly Parton in its audio tour to bring museum visitors one step closer to the country music scene.
Characters: In the late 1990s, Taco Bell had a Chihuahua mascot that won the hearts of America. The Taco Bell Chihuahua was known for its smooth Hispanic voice line, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” The character was so popular that when they dropped the mascot in 2000, their sales dropped a record 6%. The Chihuahua had become a distinct part of their brand, even selling toys with recorded messages.
Characters and their associated voices are a major part of a company’s brand. When Gilbert Gottfried was dropped by Aflac in 2011, they looked at 12,500 applicants to replace him because the duck and its signature quack was synonymous with their brand.
The next time you hear a product make a sound, think about it. Does that sound make an impact on how you view the product? You might say, "No, not really," and that's fine. But think back to the sound of dial-up Internet and ask yourself how you'd feel if your Internet made that sound every time you started browsing. Would it make you think your Internet was slower? That's the impact of sound branding.