Insights from 4A’s Research | Sonic Branding Comes in With a Ping

By Marsha Appel, SVP, 4A’s Research, [email protected].


We may be on the cusp of the age of sonic branding.

Sonic branding uses audio cues to reinforce brand identity. More commonly known as audio logos, sonic branding is an aural mnemonic device, a shortcut to embed a brand identity in consumers’ minds and trigger immediate brand recall. Sonic and visual branding are becoming increasingly complementary, with audio logos having the same recognition and association with brand attributes as visual symbols do. It’s about translating the emotional underpinning of a brand into sound.

Why utilize sound?

Sound affects people’s moods, triggers emotional response, and has an impact on behavior. Properly done, sonic branding can:

  • drive customer action
  • increase brand loyalty
  • differentiate a brand from competitors
  • grab consumer attention even without visual cues
  • build trust
  • inspire a happy and positive emotional connection to a brand.

Research shows that sound cues can increase the speed of a visual search for products, and improve the perceived taste of food and wine.

Moreover, unlike text taglines, sonic branding easily transcends geographic, cultural, and language barriers to resonate worldwide. It also has the advantage of being able to cut through the clutter of noise with an immediately recognizable musical string.

Why now?

In a word: Alexa, or more generically, voice. With the emergence of smart speakers, podcasts, and mobile payment, marketers can no longer count on consumer encounters with their visual symbols to introduce and reinforce brand identities. Audio logos are powerful sensory tools to use in apps, ringtones, on-hold music, point-of-sale acceptance, greetings for website visitors, retailer door chimes, digital video ads, and, oh yes, old school radio and television commercials.

A 2016 study by marketing analytics firm Veritonic identified the top ten audio logos, scored by a combination of effectiveness measures, including recall, emotional response, uniqueness, and likability. A few of the standouts:

  • Intel. The iconic Intel ‘bong’ was introduced in 1994 as part of the unprecedented “Intel Inside” ingredient branding campaign. It comprises five notes, but contains more than 20 musical sounds and lasts three seconds. This may well be the most recognized audio logo in the world with an unaided recall score of 88. And no wonder; after 25 years, it’s still played once every five minutes somewhere in the world.
  • T-Mobile has a five-tone chime that scores well for evoking happy and excited feelings.
  • The “I’m lovin’ it” campaign from McDonald’s launched in 2003 and continues to be used all over the world. A 2017 study from Attest Technologies showed that more than 78% of people feel happy or hungry when they hear McDonald’s audio logo.

A few other successful ones that are embedded in consumers’ minds:

The NBC three-tone signature is the first audio trademark ever to be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and has been in use since 1929.

The Jolly Green Giant’s Ho Ho Ho has been in use since the 1960s.

Another early one was the Nabisco audio logo, created to unify their multitude of products and sub-brands under a recognizable umbrella sound to accompany the ubiquitous red triangle on every package and introduced in 1983.

In the door-to-door sales days, a doorbell’s ‘ding dong’ sound would invariably trigger a Pavlovian “Avon calling” response from listeners.

The Nokia ringtone is a good example of an audio that evolved over the years. It launched in 1994, and as of 2016, was still heard at a rate of 20,000 times every second.

More recently, there was AOL’s “You’ve got mail!” and the Yahoo! Yodel.

In 2005, SNCF, the French national railway, was facing competition and was associated with strikes and delays. With a clear need to improve its image, it launched an audio branding initiative that went through several incarnations over the years, starting with the goal of imparting a perception of leadership. That evolved into an environmental positioning with more acoustic sound, then a vision of speed and mobility, with simplified sounds and a whoosh. The result? The brand is identified by 88% of listeners in just two notes, 71% see the brand as attractive, and there’s been an 18% increase in the perception of leadership.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that phone companies and entertainment brands are quite prominent in their use of audio logos. In addition to T-Mobile and Nokia, there is AT&T, HBO, and Netflix, and newly launched in 2019, a sonic logo for Pandora.

The most recent buzz surrounds launches of sonic identities for brands in the mobile payment space: Mastercard and Visa. Visa spent a year creating a two-note signature. It boosted positive perception of the brand by 14%. It took two years to develop Mastercard’s new six-note sonic ID that accompanies its reworked visual logo without the company name, but there are many lengthier versions for different environments. Both Visa and Mastercard intend their new audio signatures to be used in multiple ways and variations as part of a broader sound architecture.

A veritable cornucopia of registered sound trademark examples are available on this page of the US Patent & Trademark Office’s website.

Tips and costs

Sonic branding budgets typically range between $60,000 and several hundred thousand dollars, according to industry experts.

Distinct from a jingle, which can be as lengthy as an entire song, a sonic branding device is rarely longer than a few seconds long.

According to global brand consultancy, Labbrand, the most important characteristics of a brand sound identity are:

  • length and clarity
  • distinctiveness
  • relation to the product
  • pleasantness
  • familiarity and accessibility.

Experts provide a few guidelines for embarking on an audio branding initiative:

  • Since the goal is to express the core of the brand essence, the first step is to articulate what the brand represents.
  • Analyze the target audience, their demographics, values, and beliefs, so that the audio brand will resonate with them. Match up their perceptions with the attributes the brand wants to convey.
  • Align the audio with the visual branding elements (e.g., vibrant logo colors may not jibe with gentle musical tones). A synergy of the two will intensify the impact of branding.
  • Consider including words or even the brand name in the musical notes. Audio logos with a verbal component outperformed those without it in the Veritonic analysis.
  • Apply the audio brand consistently, but develop variations for different situations, adapting the sound based on the context. A retail shopping environment calls for something calmer than a telephone on-hold sound, which can be perkier to evoke positive feelings and interest.
  • Plan on using it over the long term. Tweaks may be made over time, as with visual logos, but it would defeat the purpose if consumers were confused.Some of the best scoring audio logos in the Vertonic study have been around for decades.

There may come a time when we’re bombarded with short and catchy aural signatures at every turn, but for now, the field is open for a savvy marketer to stamp its sonic brand on the public consciousness.

Are you lovin’ it? Ba da ba ba ba!