Photos by Tatiana Arocha
We’ve all heard audio logos before—just think of Apple’s Mac startup sound, or the five-note Intel melody that Blue Man Group spoofed for the company’s Pentium ads (or my childhood favorites, those ’70s logos for PBS and the U.K.’s Thames TV). “Mnemonics” like these are meant to inspire an emotional attachment between a brand and our collective memory. The most effective ones get filed away in our brains and absorbed into our everyday lives, forever associated with a positive experience that can be triggered by a simple suggestion.
No, it’s not The Manchurian Candidate, but there is an art behind it. And in today’s socially connected world, that art has expanded beyond a simple logo to encompass full-blown marketing strategies under the rubric of audio branding. Musician and producer Alex Moulton knows the territory; in 2001, he founded the New York-based audio production firm Expansion Team (expansionteam.org), and recently merged the company with Eyeball (eyeballnyc.com), an agile and forward-thinking boutique ad agency, where he’s now creative director.
“In the lingo of the industry, you have what are called ‘touch points,’” Moulton explains. “Ten years ago, audio touch points were very limited; you could only reach people primarily through TV and radio. You couldn’t play full polyphonic sound on a cellphone, for example—just a very simple ringtone. Now we have all these new audio touch points that can branch out to anything on the Internet and a million places in between, and this allows you to extend a brand in unique and interesting ways. Part of it is the audio logo, but a large part of it is the brand’s overall sound.”
That sound can take many forms, from the music people hear when they’re on hold with customer support, to the sound design that comes to be associated with a particular product (such as Verizon’s high-tech ads for the Droid smartphone). Whatever the element, it usually takes months of careful preparation and collaboration to fold it into a successful audio branding campaign—mostly because the approach is so new.
“A lot of companies are just starting to think about audio for the first time,” Moulton observes, “so the process has to be fully collaborative, all the way up to the CEO. What you’re trying to create can be so elemental in its end usage—a four- or five-note melody, or a sound effect, or a suite of sounds—that you have to make sure there’s an emotional buy-in from everyone at the company, otherwise it won’t be successful.”
The first step, as with any marketing campaign, is research. “We’re looking for qualitative data about what we think the audience likes and doesn’t like in relation to the brand,” Moulton says. “Then we dig into the psychology of that, and we start to build a profile of the audience. We only start to talk about musicians, composers, sound designers, and musical references when we’re in the real exploratory phase. This is where I think being a musician is key, because we do a lot of free exploration. You hope for happy accidents, and maybe there are new techniques or tools like a synthesizer, plug-in, or filter that could send you off on a more exciting path—as long as you’re sharing your progress and feeding it up the chain to make sure you’re going the right way.”
From a musician’s standpoint, audio branding is a highly specialized field, but it’s wide open if you share the underlying philosophy, which is all about understanding the needs of the brand and its audience first. “The market is not saturated with composers or musicians who only pursue this,” Moulton says. “At the same time, I don’t think I would require that someone come to me with audio logos they’ve already done for other brands. And I would probably be turned off by people who just say, ‘I’ve made a bunch of audio logos—these could work for you.’ That’s based on nothing, because it doesn’t take into account the psychology and the research part of it. Anyone can write three or four notes and make it sound cool, so it’s not about that. But I think there is a spectrum of companies that are doing this now, and just contacting them and telling them that you’re passionate about this kind of work, that’s the majority of it.”
For more information about companies you can contact, visit the Audio Branding Academy online (audio-branding-academy.org) or the LinkedIn group on Sonic Branding and Identity (linked.com/groups?gid=726837). For a more nuanced take on audio branding, try the personal blog of Noel Franus (nfranus.posterous.com), formerly with Sonic ID and curator of the Intentional Audio blog.