Heard the Latest in Branding?

Audio branding rarely ranks high, if it ranks at all, in interactive campaign plans. During the bubble years, a few consultancies emerged in the space, only to quickly disappear when non user-initiated audio rapidly became perceived as an intrusion rather than a novelty.

Audio branding now has renewed potential as a digital marketing tool. The medium? Mobile ringtones and ringback tones (more on these below). Intrusive? You bet. But in this case, intrusive is the nature of the beast. So in a weirdly ironic way, intrusiveness doesn’t matter.

Is “audio branding” an unfamiliar term? Trust me, you know it when you hear it. Can you hum a few bars of the Pink Panther or James Bond themes? Does “NBC” echo those three tones? Can you mentally conjure Yahoo’s yodel?

That’s audio branding.

Now, think ringtones. The Yankee Group says American ringtone and -tune sales will hit $140 million by year’s end, and $1 billion by 2008. British research firm Ovum says ringtones will account for the majority of mobile entertainment marketing and be worth a global $6.5 billion by 2008, $9.3 billion if you include ringback tones.

Teens constitute the bulk of this market. A Cingular Wireless spokesperson recently said some music labels see more revenue from ringtones than from CD sales. The ARC Group said ringtones accounted for roughly 10 percent of the $32.2 billion worldwide music market last year.

This is pretty astonishing stuff in consumer economic terms. A polyphonic ringtone, typically a 20-second song snippet, can cost anywhere from $1.49 to as much as $3.50. Buying that entire song costs $0.99 at Apple’s iTunes store. What consumers pay for is a means of getting that song onto their phones.

The implications? Personalization is worth a premium. Consumers demonstrably want ringtones. Mobile providers and hardware manufacturers are rushing compatible devices to market. And there’s value in this market for brand marketers, including those outside the music industry.

Brian Levin, CEO of Mobliss, says movie and TV theme songs make for massively popular ringtones, as do corporate audio signatures, such as Nike’s swoosh sound. “We have an audio version of ‘The Price Is Right,'” he told me, based solely on user demand. “There was that little yodeling guy who made a very distinctive sound on the TV show. We actually got a lot of requests for it.”

Tom Parrish, Mobliss’ SVP of music and downloads, told me the company is working on a project in which buying a particular album entitles the consumer to a free ringtone. He cites a recent primetime show in development in which the characters have custom ringtones. “If the show’s a hit, people will buy that ringtone,” he said. Marketing opportunities include cross-promotions, such as sending a text message in response to a call-to-action on a package or in a TV spot that can merit a ringtone payback. Contests and sweepstakes are also popular.

Example: Cingular and Disney Mobile are running a contest this month around “The Incredibles.” Each time Cingular subscribers download “The Incredibles” content, including ringtones, they’re automatically entered in a trip-to-Hawaii sweepstakes.

Remember how radio stations encouraged users to display a logo T-shirt or bumper sticker in the hope of being spotted by a rep and winning a prize? No reason why the concept can’t be extended to the potential of winning if your phone spouts the right tune — or tone.

This week, “Billboard” announced it would publish a weekly Top 20 list of ringtone downloads. In addition to Disney, there are plenty of brands on the list. Fox Football, Monday Night Football, NASCAR, and the song in Six Flags Theme Parks’ commercials are among the current chart makers.

Even venerable National Geographic recently announced ringtones will be available as part of a mobile content deal with GignoSystem America. Believe it or not, you can download ringtones promoting your preferred presidential candidate. Somewhere out there, a ringing phone is intoning, “I’m George Bush, and I approve this message.”

Verizon is sponsoring punk-pop band Simple Plan with what it calls “trutones,” ringtones recorded live during the concert tour. Also on offer are other one-of-a-kind ring- and voicetones, text-to-win contests, and trivia games.

Sprint PCS is pushing BlingTones, original music from hip-hop producers, including Rockwilder and Hi-Tek. Name a music genre: urban, rap, classic rock, or Latin, and there’s a company or carrier out there pushing the tones.

And in Japan, the perennial Jetsons to the rest of the world’s Flintstones as far as mobile services are concerned, one best-selling ringtone, “Rockmelon” promises to increase the user’s bust line simply through her hearing it. Stop-smoking and other self-help tones are in development.

Japanese provider Dwango is hawking “environmental” ringtones, promoted as less jarring than a ringing (or singing) mobile device. Imagine a polite cough or the clatter of cutlery, and you get the idea.

Brand Meets Band?

Marketers hoping to hook their product into major-label music will probably have to downgrade expectations. “There are disincentives to go as big as you might,” cautions Mobliss’ Levin. “The labels want their fair share, or more than their fair share. They’re not seeing the whole picture. They’re not taking advantage of the opportunities and not growing the opportunities the way they should.”

Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division) Senior Analyst David Card agrees. “Given the economics, for labels ringtones are better marketing or promotional gimmicks than they are revenue streams.”

The same holds true for brand and corporate marketers.

Next on the Airwaves: Ringback Tones

The next personalized tone trend is the ringback tone, a customizable audio track a caller hears instead of ringing while waiting for the call to be answered. Ringback tones are selected by the person being called. They’re not limited by device; they can be used on landline as well as mobile phones.

In foreign markets where they’re already available, corporate customers are expressing interest in ringback tones that play corporate jingles, flog a product launch, or contain other promotional content. Customizable by the number dialed, customer service can play one track, sales another, and a branch office yet a third tune, tone, track, or spoken-word recording.

PSYOPs

Ringtones may provide rich marketing opportunities. Whether they’ll make the world a better place is another story. I just can’t forget certain lessons of history, specifically psychological operation (PSYOP) initiatives. Iron Maiden helped get Noriega out of the Vatican Embassy. Alice Cooper, dentist drills, and the sound of dying rabbits were blasted at the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX. Last month, the U.S. Army hit Fallujah hard — with AC/DC and Hendrix.

Let’s pray intrusiveness will matter — just a little — as we ring in ringtones.

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