The three dimensions of audio branding

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When applying music with commercial intentions, such as instore or in advertising, you need to know the music is actually helping your cause. As we have discussed many times before, the wrong music can harm your brand image, message reception and message retention, consumer experience and behavior. The right music can have massive positive effects in the same fields. Today, I would like to share with you three dimensions of audio branding you need to take into account, in order to produce effective brand sound. These can be applied to any touchpoint. In fact, they should be! Let’s dive right in.

Note: when speaking of “sound” in this article, this includes all types of musical and non-musical sound. When speaking of music, this excludes all other types of sound.

Brand fit
The first dimension that should be taken into account is brand fit. In other words: the degree to which the sound implies or affirms the same values as the brand intends to exude. There are many reasons why it is highly preferable to pick sound that fits a brand, among which:
• In advertising, sound that fits the brand, boosts message reception and recall.
• On-site, fitting music serves as a differentiating factor and serves as a subconscious identity cue, particularly when revisiting the same formula repeatedly: “I feel at home here, for some reason”.
• In all branding: fitting sound affects the overall perception of a brand through the Halo effect. This means the sound is not assessed as a separate entity, but serves as an identity cue for everything experienced under its influence.

There are several ways to create brand fit in sound. A relatively recent development in audio branding is the emergence of objective and quantified methods for matching sound to brands. This prevents us from having to deal too much with personal preferences and inexplicable gut-feeling decisions. How to match sound to a brand is a fascinating topic in its own right, read about my recommended methods in this LinkedIn article.

Intentional non-fit
As always, there are exceptions. Sometimes sound needs to match a specific application or event, rather than the brand itself. Think, for instance, of holiday-themed advertisements or any temporary collaborations between brands, events or organizations. Just make sure that the sound is non-fitting for a good reason.

Function
The second dimension that you need to take into account is function. Sound affects people in profound ways. It affects biorhythms such as heart and breath rates, but also hormone secretion, emotion, association, perception, and cognitive functioning. You can imagine, you need different effects on all of these factors at different touchpoints. You might want to have a viewer excited by your TV ad, but calm and relaxed when on-site. Logically, the same sound will not cut it.

This dimension of audio branding is most often forgotten, simply because music professionals are not trained at it. You do not learn music psychology, biology and consumer behavior sciences at a conservatory or music production course. Yet this is where it is decided if your sound actually makes or costs you money.

There is no quick-fix tip on how to apply this dimension properly. Simplified, the following three steps will get you a long way:
• Identify the specific demands of the touchpoint you are working for. What is the medium you are working for designed to achieve?
• Identify which physical and psychological state the consumer should be in, to best cater to these goals.
• Figure out how sound can be used to bring people into this state. Don’t be afraid to browse Google Scholar or, for instance, The Oxford handbook of music psychology for guidelines. This is just as much science as it is art.

Semantics
The final dimension to take into account is semantics. This is where your work gets deeper meaning and purpose. I am talking about symbolic meaning in your sound, wether it is in the composition, instrumentation or acoustic components of the work. Think about Coca-cola using the hiss of an opening can as a sound logo of sorts. Not only does it align with the brand identity (Brand fit), it also invokes thirst and desire (Function) and as it is the actual sound of the product, it is symbolically as close to the product as you could possibly get.

Semantics can be applied more subtly though. Remember the “Ta ta ta taaa” from Beethoven’s fifth? That’s actually a sonic symbol for death knocking on your door. Sonic symbolism can be found anywhere. From specific instruments to reflect different parts of the world, to the use of different ascending or descending melodies to reflect a positive or negative outcome of an interaction with a device.

My good friends at Global Music Branding once did the music for an ad for a painkiller. They used auditive semantics by dissolving sharp, dissonant sounds into a more pleasant, consonant harmony to symbolize the relieve of physical pain.

Semantics are most audio branding agencies’ favorite element. It allows them to get creative and “justify” their work through the implied symbolism. Watch out not to be tempted to neglect the other two dimensions though. I recently came across a showreel where the entire strategy behind a sonic identity was “Your brand is British, so we have used this horn which was once common in Britain”. Semantics have been mistaken for Brand fit more than once. They are two separate things, although you can apply semantics to create your brand fit.

Three is a charm
Successful audio branding takes all three dimensions into account. Typically a sonic DNA will be constructed using primarily brand fit and semantics, with functional translations to all required touchpoints. This is the ideal way to work, as it safeguards both a recognizable core sound and effective translations to all touchpoints.

Need help balancing the three dimensions of audio branding? Get in touch!

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