Why Sonic Identity Matters to Brands

Sound has tight links to memory, which is why brands are taking it seriously as a point of identification.

headphones on a dual colored background

The ways people engage with content and brands are changing rapidly. With the rise of smart speakers, voice shopping and e-commerce via wearables such as smartwatches, audio is gaining prominence in how brands communicate—and resonate—with consumers.

Marketers understand the value of strong visual branding. Brand guidelines are not only about the individual visuals, colors, fonts, logo usage and language, but also how those elements reinforce the brand’s primary attributes—the key descriptors a brand wants to invoke with its identity and overall existence.

Our ears are highly sophisticated instruments for interpreting sounds and, more importantly, linking those sounds to memory. That means sounds have the power to create strong emotional responses. So brands such as Mastercard, Visa and Ford are using sounds in innovative ways to widen the spectrum of how they make deep, long-lasting emotional connections with consumers. One method is sonic branding, sometimes referred to as sound branding, acoustic branding or audio branding. This is essentially the practice of incorporating audio elements into a brand’s identity.

1. Mastercard: Minds and hearts

Mastercard, off a recent logo refresh where it abandoned the brand name in its logo, has invested in sonic branding. Mastercard has created a suite of music to connect consumers with its brand not only during the point of sale but through its marketing and advertising campaigns as well.

Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer at Mastercard, described it in a brand video: “Sonic identity literally adds a new dimension to the consumer experience. It reaches people’s minds and hearts through another sense, which is the sense of hearing. Our sonic brand registers our brand more powerfully. This evolution helps us prepare for the future of voice commerce, internet of things and so on. An audio strategy is no longer a nice to have. It’s just as important as a brand’s visual identity.”

Mastercard released a series of ads that introduced us to the brand’s new sonic identity by connecting it to the sounds of our daily environments, such as a coffee shopboutique storetaxi cabrestaurant and an artist’s loft. In addition to its sonic identity, the company created longer iterations of the songs that were composed for different regions. The company has collaborated with musicians, such as Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, who said, “It’s great to see a big brand expressing themselves through music to strengthen their connection with people.”

2. Visa: Multiple senses

Visa is exploring the sonic branding space, too. The company offers what it calls a three-sensory branding experience (haptic, animated and auditory) for purchases that use Visa through partnering merchants. Visa surveyed consumers in eight countries and found the following:

  • 81 percent of participants said they would have a more positive perception of merchants who used either the sound or animation cues (“Any more bells and whistles to make me actually pay attention is important. … I don’t want to take paying for things lightly,” said one respondent.)
  • At less than a second in length, the sound of Visa was found to signal speed and convenience.
  • 83 percent of participants said the sound or animation cues positively affected their perception of the Visa brand.

You can hear Visa’s sonic branding here.

3. Lincoln: Driving experience

Ford’s Lincoln team collaborated with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to create custom symphonic chimes for the Lincoln Aviator. No matter how long you’ve been driving, you can probably close your eyes and imagine what a seat-belt chime sounds like, the sound of a door being left open, or worst of all, the dreaded backup beeping of an old van or truck. Lincoln and the DSO were able to use sonic branding to change up those conventions and instill a sense of luxury into the driving experience for customers.

Jennifer Prescott, vehicle harmony engineer for Lincoln Motors, described it in an introductory video: “This is a new nameplate so it was something that had to be unique. So we were looking at what would be luxurious, what would fit with the quiet flight, I’m comfortable, I’m in my sanctuary kind of theme and be something completely unexpected.”

What impresses me most is how the variety of audio must span from “soft warning chimes” to “hard warning chimes,” which still must support the brand’s core attributes. This is what I believe to be the most important part of any branding effort: when the audio, color, type, layout and language all support the essence of what the brand is trying to instill and invoke in the consumer.

When it comes to content creation, the use of audio as a powerful tool needs to be a supportive extension of the brand. Understanding the important attributes the company is trying to communicate via its visual brand is critical so audio elements can be properly implemented in a video, podcast and interactive experience.

I believe that the phrase “look and feel” will soon come to include “listen and feel.”

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