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Audio branding is the business

In the first of a series of features, Francis Rumsey takes a sideways look at audio developments. If you've ever wondered what citrus should sound like, or what is the most appropriate audio logo for yoghurt, then the audio branding community is the place to go...

Sound design is increasingly associated with brand identity, and ‘audio branding’ is a growing business these days. If you’ve ever wondered what citrus should sound like, or what is the most appropriate audio logo for yoghurt, then the audio branding community is the place to go. Most people will know, for example, what an Intel processor ‘sounds like’ because the company has a clear audio logo. Such a big deal is this becoming that an Audio Branding Academy was founded in 2009 by Cornelius Ringe, Kai Bronner and Rainer Hirt. The founders call it ‘the first independent institution for acoustic brand communication’ and it hosted its first Audio Branding Congress last November. Aiming to ‘promote an intentional and responsible use of acoustic stimuli with brand communication’, the Academy wants to establish audio branding as a clear discipline with professional values.

Julian Treasure (pictured) is chairman of The Sound Agency, a sound consultancy that has worked with clients such as Marks & Spencer, BAA and The Body Shop. He is also author of the book Sound Business, which explains how sound can change people’s behaviour in commercial environments.

Apparently, research shows that appropriate sound can increase sales by 30% and triple productivity in the work place. On his blog, Treasure interviews Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University, who studies multi-modal effects in psychology (in essence the interactions between one sense and another). Spence mentions synaesthetic associations, which are the tendency to associate colours with sounds, or sounds with tastes, for example. Some people have such associations more strongly than others, but there seem to be some common trends in the nature of these. The sweet taste tends to be associated with high frequencies and the taste of coffee, apparently, with low-frequency sounds. Spence has been working with chef Heston Blumenthal to develop sounds that complement his dishes. One can try to capture the environment and ambient cues that make a wine taste like it did on holiday, suggests Spence, or hear the sound of the sea through some headphones while eating seafood.

According to music psychologist Professor Adrian North, in his speech at the Audio Branding Congress, so-called ‘knowledge activation’ takes place when music triggers the retrieval of interconnected units in the brain. If customers are uncertain about what to buy then music can influence them one way or another. Playing typical French music in a wine shop resulted in substantial increases in sales of French wine, for example. However, if a customer goes into the shop with the clear intention of buying German wine the music is unlikely to make any difference.

Jesper Ramsgaard from Danish company Delta SenseLab, when interviewed by Treasure, says that sound logos and sound brands can indeed work for companies. SenseLab has been doing evaluation work in this area, and Ramsgaard believes that sound logos can convey meaningful information in a short time. Asked if there are any dos and don’ts in this area he suggests that doing it yourself, trusting your own preferences, is not a good idea. Go for someone who knows what they’re doing, he says, someone who has experience at creating the meaningful associations that are needed if the result is to be successful.

The Audio Branding Academy, it would appear, has a decidedly German leaning in its membership. Says Ringer: “Germany is one of the centres of acoustic brand communication, but attendees from the US, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, among others, showed that audio branding is becoming more and more an internationally accepted part of brand communication.”

Among the leading agencies and studios in the field is Groves Sound Communications, based in Hamburg and London. John Groves has been involved with shaping the sound of some of the world’s leading brands, including Audi, Bacardi and Danone. The company’s website contains a number of case studies, including one for Bitburger beer, where the challenge was to communicate the attribute ‘freshness’. “We set about creating a recognisable and unique mnemonic device,” states the commentary, “that would communicate freshness and make an exclusive association to Bitburger. We did this by concentrating on producing an original Bitburger pouring sound… achieved by combining different elements of the glass-filling cycle.”

According to UK-based Sonic ID, sonic branding is all about the “intentional use of music, sound, voice and silence to create connections between people and organisations”. Noel Franus, Sonic’s director of strategy, runs a blog called, where he points to a recent Time interview with brand futurist Martin Lindström, in which it’s suggested that some of the generic sounds we experience today will become ‘owned’ by brands in the future. However, Franus is not so sure. “We’re trying to change behaviours,” he says. “Brands that succeed are those that evoke meaning with intent, precision and a keen sense of context, not those that have the best bag of tricks for crashing the amygdala [one of the brain’s core emotional memory and response centres] in just a 30-second spot.”

Lindström, whose recent book Buyology discusses what makes people buy things, goes on to say in his Time interview that the sound of a baby’s giggle turns out to be the most addictive sound in the world. Some brand sounds can also come to have negative connotations, he says, such as the start-up sound of a computer operating system that can become associated with constant crashing and restarts. For this reason companies need to think about subtly changing their sonic identities over time, in order to avoid the build up of potentially negative vibes.

Asking the right questions is one way of encouraging companies to think about whether they have exploited audio branding fully. Composer Jonathan Elias founded Elias Arts, a US-based organisation for music services, which has a checklist for clients that includes questions such as ‘Does your brand style guide include sonic direction?’ and ‘Can you name the key elements that are integral to your brand’s audio palette?’. ‘Let us help you leverage the power of audio for your brand’s bottom line,’ it concludes. The power of branding seems such that few can afford to ignore audio’s potential to contribute. It could be a shot in the arm for studios that are wondering how to make a living in hard times, if they have the creative talent to succeed in this growing field.