Branding Blind: How Sound Plays a Role in Branding

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.

How to Pick a Brand Name that Doesn't Suck

Think of a brand: any brand. What was the first thing that popped into your head? I'm no magician: I can’t guess which brand you were thinking of. What I do know that you weren’t thinking of its tagline or color scheme. What popped up in your mind was the brand’s name. A brand’s name is communicated every day. When you tell a friend you ate Taco Bell for lunch, you’re likely not going to add in its “Think outside the bun” tagline or draw a picture of the Taco Bell logo. Since a brand’s name is passed around more than any other element of a company’s brand, it needs careful attention and consideration.

There’s No Excuse for a Garbage Name

Picking a brand name isn’t easy. You may want to go with your gut and pick the first thing that sounds right. But there’s more to a name than just your response to it. A name can be a detriment to a company if a customer responds to it negatively. For example, German MP3 developer TrekStor didn’t consider the implications of naming the black variant of its i.Beat MP3 player the i.Beat blaxx. Customers were outraged by the racist oversight, causing the company to issue an apology and immediately change the name.

Another problem is the brand name might be misleading. Popular clothing brand Evereve launched a $1.5 million rebranding campaign in 2014 to change its name from Hot Mama because customers thought the company sold maternity clothes. This is where testing comes in handy to ensure the name doesn’t mislead customers, therefore alienating them. If you test at the beginning of the branding process, you won’t have to spend time and money fixing the damage of the original name.

Pick a Name that Hits All the Right Notes

According to Wheeler, there are eight qualities of great names:

  • Meaningful: A brand’s name needs to carry its meaning and capture the “essence of the brand”. This can be obvious (think Kentucky Fried Chicken) or more abstract (like Puma, which evokes a fast and powerful image that is perfect for running shoes).
  • Distinctive: A brand’s name needs to stand out and be memorable. Yes, China, King, and Buffet are all good words to include in a Chinese buffet restaurant name, but really, how many generic Chinese buffets do you know that already use a combination of those words? (I can think of two within five miles of my house.)
  • Future-Oriented: Successful brands expand and adapt, so a good name needs to allow for these changes. Google started out as a search engine but has expanded to further endeavors, each of which can carry the Google name and legacy.
  • Modular: Modular names can help create a collection of related objects. McDonald’s could put “Mc” at the front of any food, and you’d recognize it as a McDonald’s meal. Meanwhile, Apple successfully groups together its products by sharing an “i”, such as iMac, iPod, and iPhone.
  • Protectable: Protectable brands can be trademarked so you can own the name. No one in the industry has the name, and no one else will. Apple actually faced legal issues with this in the mid-2000s with Apple Records when they released the iTunes Music Store because the association between Apple Computers and the word "music" was a breach of contract. It's better to just go with a name that won't get you in legal trouble.
  • Positive: A good name is a happy name, or at least a name that doesn’t evoke a negative reaction. In the 1980’s Ayds candy sales suffered because their name was associated with AIDS. So the company changed the name to Diet Ayds, which just made the situation worse.
  • Visual: Good brands can also be great logos. Brands like Target and Shell have names that successfully link their name to an image so their name and logo act as a unit.


There’s More than One Way to Name a Business

There’s more than one option to go when choosing a name. There’s no right option, but some options might be better suited for your business than others.

  • Founder Name: The upside to this is you have a name to go with your business. It ties your business to a face, and gives your brand a people element. For example, Johnson & Johnson’s name reinforces their people helping people message. But the downside is that it is tied to a person. If that person does something negative, it might impact the brand. For example, when Paula Deen’s racial slur scandal happened in 2013, her product line was dropped by Wal-Mart.
  • Descriptive: Descriptive names get the point of the brand across. People know that Burger King sells burgers and Petsmart sells pet supplies. But if you have any intent to expand, you may not want your brand to be limited by its name.
  • Fabricated: If you want the totally unique name, go fabricated. These names are memorable and protectable, but the meaning may not be clear. It also provides the opportunity to tell customers the story of how the name was developed. But unlike descriptive names, their meanings aren’t intuitive.
  • Metaphor: Metaphors make for strong brand names. They’re less specific and tie the brand to a concept. Nike, whose namesake comes from the Greek goddess of victory, not only represents their competitive message, but allows the company to expand beyond just footwear into other sports gear.
  • Acronym: Acronyms take a long name and make it shorter. While this lets you give your name a deeper meaning, it can make your company hard to remember. Many companies use acronyms when they’ve already built up rapport. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to use an acronym. ASOS (As Seen on Screen) built a successful online fashion business in the early 2000s.
  • Misspelling: Some companies take an existing word and make it their own by changing the spelling. This retains the meaningfulness of the brand while making it easier to trademark and own. Companies like Tumblr, Flickr, and even Google used misspellings to create their names.
  • Combinations: By combining these naming conventions, you can make a generic name more personal or a unique name more understandable. Netflix combines a descriptive and a misspelling in its name by combining "net flicks (colloquial for movies)" with a misspelling of "flicks".

You’ve got all the tools to make a good name, just make sure to test it with your audience and you’re good to go!