The Changing Role of Sound in Branding
[First published by SEMIONAUT†, September 20, 2011.]
Composers and sound designers have long treated commercial projects as they would film scores, but in miniature. It’s obvious to see why. Traditional scoring techniques do many things for film and other media. Scoring adds flavour; provides a sense of time and place; magnifies emotion; enhances activity and establishes mood. A mere hint of melody can even frame the present, foreshadow the future, or recall the past.
Scoring also serves the functional purpose of smoothing problematic transitions. It’s as if music possesses a sensory gravity that draws together disparate images, scenes, people and places. A deftly scored experience feels less a sequence of individual events and more like a cohesive, unified work.
Obviously, music is pretty magical stuff, and there is no question that for the modern storyteller, it remains a powerful tool.
Nevertheless, the proliferation of multiple, small portable screens, in tandem with the device-ification of all remaining objects, has changed (and will continue to change) how audiences navigate media. If our smart phones cause a distraction now, what happens when our homes and everything in them also become ‘smart’?
The primary effect is that marketers are increasingly forced to abbreviate narrative, and add brand-to-fan touch points that didn’t exist before (or if they existed, were ignored). Consequently, the notion of story has been stretched to its semantic limits.
Yet one noticeably interesting result of this tectonic paradigm shift has been the curious emergence of a new breed of sonic artisan.
The practice is called audio, music or sonic branding, and many have indeed recast themselves using this nomenclature. Others have adopted related verbal identifiers, but haven't updated their processes, because they think such phrases are simply new ways to give the same old thing a modern twist.
Personally, I believe branding with sound does require a different aural intelligence than is typically accumulated from a film or broadcast media composer’s education or experience. I frame the actual process as the development and combination of micro musical sounds into ‘critical noise’ assets.
Unlike most commercial composition, the aim is not to support narrative, but to convey a message.
Rather, we employ sound to reframe an otherwise interruptive transition as an informational transaction. A navigation tone, such as a click of the mouse, for one example, confirms ‘command executed’. A custom ringtone signals someone you know requests your attention. And a deceptively simple melodic logo has unzipped itself inside your brain. You can't really sing it, but its construction suggests it's bursting with symbolic data.
Indeed, in the same way the purpose and design of a traffic signal is different from painting landscapes, so too is the craft of sonic signification different from composing music to enhance dramatic action. Ironically, branded sound is designed to influence behavior and drive action from a potentially distracted audience, while an action score is composed to delight a passive, receptive audience.
This is why new musical solutions providers require not only musical talent but also the ability to research and analyse extra musical, culturally relevant data. Lacking these skills, we risk conceptual dissonance when our goal is immediate comprehension.
Additionally, these sonic assets are ‘critical’ because in an automated world, they are the first point of contact between a brand and consumer, and therefore increasingly synonymous with another more common signifier: ‘hello’.
Unlike thematic material, when we use sound as a signifier, we intend to deliver a self-contained and instant communication. Sometimes, in the case of a consumer touch point, we only have seconds to do this. While that is just as hard to do as it sounds, it isn’t without precedent. But first, we have to think like a sonic semiotician.
I was fortunate to produce a 1.25 sec connect tone for AT&T. The communications company wanted to leverage the pause between dial and pick-up to identify itself using a non-verbal connection tone. Impossible? As it turns out, you can actually say a lot in 1.25 seconds. You can say: ‘Provided to by AT&T, a friendly and technologically savvy company.’
To understand how this might actually work, consider the possibility of guessing the title of a song from a snippet. Now, even more amazing, recall how a mere sliver of sound can evoke an emotional response. Anger, Love, Sadness, Joy. It quickly becomes evident that even a button-sized musical solution has the power to fulfill a marketing objective. And because branded sonic assets are often wordless, they become especially advantageous assets across a multinational customer base.
Of course, traditional film scoring techniques will continue to contribute to our enjoyment of stories. However, marketers will increasingly rely less on scoring and more on critical noise solutions that can guarantee immediate brand signification as a means to fulfilling a communications strategy or marketing objective.
In other words, the intelligent application of sound is more important than ever.
Semionaut is an online magazine & knowledge resource offering insight into culture, media, creative industries, and brand strategy. Its publishers, editors, and contributors are professionally involved in the application of semiotic and cultural analysis to brand communication and design issues.