Branding With Audio

Advertisers too often limit branding potential to visuals alone. It’s as though once a vision statement is drafted in the corporate boardroom, it frequently goes out the door voiceless.

Certainly television commercials give products some sort of voice with original scores or licensed tracks. But many of these scores do not serve the company or product identity. Instead they serve to enhance the commercial itself. Licensed tracks pose another problem. The commercials are transformed in the minds of viewers to music videos, and whether viewers identify the music with the product takes a back seat to the artist and to the video itself.

Traditional Scoring Serves the Film, Not the Brand

Most conversations between agency creatives and the music-production team are usually limited to a few adjectives that describe the target demographic. There may also be some talk about how the music should work with the edit or how the score will enhance the emotional relationship between the actors or clarify the story. But these are all issues that apply to the commercial as entertainment. There is usually little strategic thought invested in how to actually create with sound a bond between the consumer and the product.

Though it’s easy to think marketers and their vendors have formed a creative alliance to sell products, this is not always the case in today’s economy. Rather we’re acting as matchmakers for producers and consumers. We’re using advertising then not to sell but to network. We’re introducing one good friend to another, and one of them happens to make something that, by the way, appeals to the lifestyle the other leads or aspires to.

Sometimes we can’t even offer usefulness. We might try to promise uniqueness, but there may be few discernible differences between your product and your competitors’. One soda conveys universality while the other appeals to individuality. But oats are oats, and cola is cola. So if you’re not accentuating the brand, then you’re left pushing flavored water. However, as marketers, we know a little stimulation goes a long way.

Branding Through Sound

My specialty is sound. And I submit that unless you are using sound as effectively as possible, you’re shortchanging your client. So the question arises: How does one go about creating a voice every bit as identifiable with the company as the building in which it dwells?

First let’s change our perspective. I suggest we move away from thinking of commercials strictly as anecdotal short films with strategically placed product shots. Story telling by itself is only one device at our disposal to garner the interest and attention of our desired audience.

But branding beyond advertising means we want to do more than simply tell a story. What we really want to do is make an introduction and deliver a message. Branding is the vision statement given life, and it represents an opportunity to ingrain one’s identity into the public consciousness. One highly effective way to do just this is with the prudent and thoughtful use of sound.

Creating a Philosophy of Sound

Some years ago I was the music producer on a campaign for a large investment bank. One of the VIPs came to our initial music presentation when everything was still in an embryonic stage. He was a layman. I sensed the more musically astute people in the room resented his presence. But I found that because he knew his brand thoroughly, he also understood how it should be conveyed sonically.

He didn’t play a musical instrument, nor did he know any of the proper musical terms. But he knew how music made him feel and that different instruments evoked different moods. Most important, he could articulate his perceptions quite clearly. To me he represented the ideal client.

It’s valuable to know not just how an audience will react but also, more precisely, how they can be made to react. Our VIP didn’t know if he was listening to violins or contrabasses, but he knew the high strings evoked one mood, and the low strings another. The sound of the low strings conveyed “a sense of authority and power,” and that’s what he wanted.

So despite all the preproduction meetings in which the agency creative staff, the director, and the editor all discussed how the music should work with the cut or enhance the story, one brief conversation with someone who knew nothing about music proved to be the most valuable. And we, in turn, were then able to create an audio style guide that would influence the sound campaign for this account for years to come.

Although the same film-scoring issues surfaced with future spots for the same client (i.e., the story, the edit, etc.), we now had a philosophy of sound, the corporate vision statement as it applied to audio. Every new piece of music, no matter what the melody, was designed using the same palette of sounds and was thus easily identifiable as this client’s sonic identity. One needn’t even see the visuals to appreciate that your “Friends at the Bank” brought you this piece of music.

The Power of Sound in Branding

I put forward that every sound asset used in a commercial, on an in-store kiosk, or on a Web site should be easily identifiable as the voice of your company. Do you know what your company is saying right now?

If music in a marketing context does its job, it will inform as well as entertain. And if consumers — that is, your audience — call the company switchboard and ask who wrote the music and where they can buy a CD of it, then maybe you and your client should actually produce a promotional CD that consumers can take home and listen to whenever they want.

Branding beyond advertising means creating an experience that is free of an overt pitch yet is compelling enough that consumers will nevertheless identify it with your brand. If you’ve produced a CD, for instance, folks will listen to it while they eat, work out, make love, and your company will be the underscore to their lives. Oats may be oats, but if I’m making babies to your music, then chances are my babies will be eating your oats.

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