Jingles All the Way: How Sonic Branding Is Helping Companies Get Heard in the Voice Computing Age

September 7, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC

Mastercard’s chief marketing officer, Raja Rajamannar was searching for the perfect earworm—a sound that could stick in people’s brains but never be annoying. The tune would be customized for 210 countries, for every buying situation. It would be slightly different—but instantly recognizable—whether it punctuated the end of a commercial, graced the inside of the corporate elevator, or even noted a financial transaction on an Amazon Alexa device. And, most importantly, this melody would somehow conjure up an emotional peace of mind.

It took two years to find. 

There’s good reason for the executive’s exhaustive efforts. We’re currently in the midst of a voice computing revolution. At least 40% of Americans now own smart speakers in their homes, shopping and searching the web by voice. By 2020, we’ll see a quarter of a billion connected cars on the roads, according to Gartner Research, vehicles teeming with virtual assistant technology. And 63% of the “Internet of Things” consists of app-enabled devices like like smart dishwashers and thermostats. Every connected device has the opportunity to interact with consumers. “The world is going into voice interactions,” says Rajamannar, “and we as a brand couldn’t afford not to be there.” 

Not the same ol’ tune

Sonic branding, audio logos, and jingles are not necessarily new. Almost everyone recognizes that Apple hum when you power on a Mac, the iPhone’s familiar Marimba ringtone, and even Intel’s familiar three-note signature at the end of commercials. But the conversation about signature sounds is getting louder, and more nuanced, as consumers change how they interact with the world.

In recent months, more media and advertising agencies and publishers have begun jumping into the game. In the past, agency creative directors made most decisions about brand sounds and music. They might write a brief, gather tracks from artists and select a winner.

But this summer, iHeartMedia and British advertising giant WPP created a partnership to create a new audio branding service. Also in June, music platform Pandora created a new sonic branding consultancy called Studio Resonate that builds on the company’s scientific approach to music—dissecting melody, rhythm and psychology to help brands appeal to consumers.

There’s a need for this expertise; today’s sonic strategy is far more complex. In the case of Mastercard, which released its sonic brand logo this spring, the process involved McCann advertising execs, plus teams of neurologists, psychologists, musicologists, composers and musicians. Rajamannar and his team analyzed 2,000 melodies to find a sound that could be adapted for backgrounds, trade shows, sponsorships, office music, ringtones, transaction alerts, and commercials. 

Unlike a jingle, which hits people over the head and is meant to be jarring and interruptive, this would be different: a Pavlovian-style background noise, a brand’s signature sound.

Setting the tone

The payment company had a specific criterion for what qualified as the “perfect sound.” It had to be extremely simple and neutral—likable but not so fantastic that it’d be distracting. It had to be memorable and hummable and it had to fit within a broader brand identity strategy—which started in 2016, when the company dropped the Mastercard name from its logo.

The melody must be adjustable, depending on where you are located, giving the company a Mumbai version, for instance, or a Shanghai take. It had to be customizable based on what you were buying, giving a video game purchase at GameStop an 8-bit feel, perhaps, while a splurge at Tiffany & Co. would have a more luxurious tone.

Mastercard’s audio logo became a passion project for Rajamannar, who grew up in a family made up of musicians. Unlike making decisions about the creative for an ad, this sonic branding project required people with musical knowledge, people who had musical sensibilities and who could analyze the components of a song to say why specifically it worked or not.

“You couldn’t just say, ‘I don’t like it,’” Rajamannar says. “I had to make sure I didn’t get carried away with my own biases.”

He personally traveled to music studios around the world where he’d brainstorm with artists on melodies. Sometimes, finding the right sound involved blending together bits and pieces of music from various artists. And doing that, of course, involved a delicate balance of managing creatives who sometimes got attached to their own work.

“It took a lot of patience,” says Rajamannar, who listened to hundreds of melodies—so many at a time that his senses would get overwhelmed. He compared the process to smelling too many perfumes, one right after another. “You have to take a break and clear your head.”

To ensure Mastercard’s sound was unique, the company also hired musicologists who compared its compositions to a database of music, using artificial intelligence programs like the music app Shazam. Neuroscientists chimed in. So did famous composers and musicians, including Mike Shinoda, a singer-songwriter and founder of the band Linkin Park. 

Several times, Rajamannar thought he had a winning melody—and then discovered through research and focus groups that the sounds didn’t translate well to certain countries. In one case, it was the Middle East and in another case, a tune couldn’t be adapted to the high energy feel needed for the Latin American market. Says Rajamannar: “We scrapped it and went back to the drawing board.”

Ultimately, Mastercard settled on one core melody with 20 different versions, and in time expects to have over 200 renditions. “It was a tremendous amount of work to get something so simple,” says Pierre Lipton, global executive creative director for the New York ad agency McCann. 

The 30-second song could be broken down into a 3-second subset. It would be played in Mastercard office elevators, at corporate speeches, at the ends of ads, and at the end of every transaction. The tune would be adjusted to be slightly different each time you heard it over and over at a Walmart checkout line or at a train station in Taiwan.  Rajamannar compares it to ensuring the sound doesn’t sound like the repetitive sound of a squawking crow, but instead birds chirping that blends into background.  “It couldn’t be annoying,” he says.

Behind the music

Why all the fuss over a few musical notes? The answer, essentially, is science.

It’s well understood that sound has long been a powerful vehicle for behavior and perception. Auditory neural pathways are less complex than their visual counterpart, which means people react to sound 10 to 100 times faster than sight. In other words, the brain is literally wired to react to sound and categorize it. So whether it’s the sound of a snake or the wind in the grass, your ears will likely know it before your eyes do.

Research also shows that music can affect our behavior, our purchases, and even our perception of flavor, scent and texture, says Steve Keller, Pandora’s new sonic strategy director.

For instance, one study by the U.K.’s University of Leicester looked at how music impacted sales in a wine shop. On days that traditional French music was played, 77% of the wine sold was French, and on the days traditional German music played, 73% of the wine sold was German. Few shoppers even noticed the connection: Only 1 out of 44 customers who answered questions at checkout spontaneously mentioned that the music was the reason behind their selection.

In addition, sound can cause chemicals to be released in our brains, producing physiological effects. For example, an unfamiliar or alarming noise can cause a burst of cortisol to kick in and produce a fight or flight response, or how music we love coaxes out dopamine, which accounts for feelings of euphoria, says Keller. Pandora’s own research into “audio archetypes,” has demonstrated, too, that music has the power to convey meaning to help us create a narrative.

“We can change the storyline of something simply by changing the musical score,” says Keller. Now that’s the kind of science that sounds like music to brand marketers’ ears. 

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