Sonic Branding

Sonic Branding Pic.png

This episode was written & produced by Kevin Edds.

We are constantly exposed to sonic branding in television, radio, and web commercials. We deconstruct some of the most impactful audio logos in history and explain how the brain interprets them. Featuring Scott Simonelli, CEO of  Veritonic and Walter Werzowa, founder of Musikvergnuegen.


Fury (Instrumental) - Prague
Unlimited - Dario Lupo
Endless Wild Perfect (Instrumental) - Le Voyager
Stunner - Airplanes
See - Roary
Plan B (no oohs ahhs) - Watermark High
Luminary (instrumental) - Benjamin James
Spacca - Steven Gutheinz
Spheres - Steven Gutheinz
Lost in the Mist - David a Molina
Time Carver - Steven Gutheinz
Faces (no oohs ahhs) - Roary
Finally the Sun - Dustin Lau
Her Dress - The Light The Heat

20K is made out of the studios of Defacto Sound and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎


ESPN Anchor: So many people wonder where the theme music from SportsCenter came from. David St. Hubbins from Spinal Tap, you gotta tell me where this came from.

St. Hubbins: I don’t really know, it’s a mystery. It kind of sprang from my forehead. I was just sitting there watching SportsCenter and I went [plays SportsCenter audio logo].

[SFX: Sportcenter theme]

You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story… of Sonic Branding.

[music in]

The commercial you heard at the top of the show was from the classic “This Is SportsCenter” advertising campaign by ESPN. The ending of SportCenter’s iconic theme song became ubiquitous with the ESPN brand. Fans of the network were humming their new “audio logo” to themselves, so their marketing team knew they were onto something.

[music Out]

Last year advertising spending in the US was estimated to be over two-hundred-billion dollars. Not on product development, or manufacturing, or distribution. But on advertising alone. [sfx montage under rest of paragraph: Duracell,Nokia, NBC, LG, Playstation, T. Mobile, Nintendo Switch,] And while much of advertising includes commercials, signage, print & digital ads, a key part of any marketing that utilizes sound is an audio logo.

An audio logo, or a sonic brand if you will [sfx under VO: aflac duck, Nintendo Gamecube] , is a short distinctive melody or other sequence of sound. [sfx: McDonalds] It’s usually positioned at the beginning or ending of a commercial.[sfx: Old Spice Whistle] It can be considered as the acoustic equivalent of a visual logo.

[music in]

Almost every time you listen to a TV or radio commercial for a big brand, there’s an audio logo to punctuate the message. According to the Harvard Business Review, “sound can play an important role in positively differentiating a product or service. It can also enhance recall, create preference, build trust, and even increase sales.”

Scott: An audio logo is the audio identity of a brand in the way that you have the Golden Arches, or any visual logo, and that audio logo can be something that is present across a whole bunch of different advertising mediums. It can be a tag at the end of every ad, it can be the focal point of an ad, but, ultimately it should be present every time your brand is being heard.

[music out]

That’s Scott Simonelli, the founder and CEO of Veritonic, a marketing intelligence platform for sound. They measure audio effectiveness in advertising.

Scott: I think the Nationwide example is very top of mind, [SFX: Nationwide is on Your Side] it just works so well, and now it's at the core of their campaigns. [SFX: Nationwide campaign example, carry under dialog] You see them using it, and thinking about ways to base a campaign around the audio logo.

[SFX: bump out Nationwide campaign clip]

Scott: The way we're wired, and the ways our bodies are built. Sound is a very big part of the equation and it's very innate. You internalize sound really quickly, and we're very sensitive to what we hear, because, just evolutionary. Usually hear something coming [SFX: bear roar, running up to listener] when trouble's about to happen. It's also you're hearing for a whole bunch of months before you're born, all you do is hear. [SFX: muffled sounds of talking and heartbeat, as if from the womb] It's definitely something that's a big part of it, and I think in children you sort of see that.

I think children are always a good litmus test of what's innate, because they're much more unfiltered than adults.

Sound is also very different from sight. Audio logos and video logos are are interpreted by the brain in two totally different ways. Yet they can both be representations of the same brand. Advertisers work extremely hard creating them to try to evoke those same feelings in consumers.

Scott: The big benefit of an audio logo versus a visual logo, is that it stays with you after you've experienced it. [SFX: washed out ‘memories’ of audio logos under dialog...] With a visual logo, you might remember what it looks like, but not in the way that you would remember an audio logo, and certainly nobody's humming or singing a visual logo. As soon as you hear that three- note, or four-note sequence, you know exactly where you've heard it before, that longevity, that memorability, and that recall is so powerful.

[SFX: SEGA audio logo]

Memorability in audio logos is key. And it’s not always because the product is so amazing. Sometimes the audio logo is something we might call an earworm - something that just gets stuck in your head and you can’t get it out. Mennen After Shave had a great example of this in the 80s [SFX: "By Mennen"] It was so popular that it became the basis of a storyline in an episode of Seinfeld. Here George Costanza tries to make himself more memorable to a woman that he was dating.

[sfx: Seinfeld clip… George Costanza: I’m like a commercial Jingle, at first it’s a little irritating, then you hear it a few times and you’re humming it in the shower. By the 3rd date it’s “By Mennen”

Female speaker: Alright George, the first time we went out….I found you very irritating, but after seeing you a couple of times you sorta got stuck in my head. “Cosss-tanza”]

But setting out to make an audio logo memorable is not easy. It takes skill, creativity, research, and sometimes luck.

Scott: For a composer, or for a firm trying to create an audio logo, it is ridiculously hard to try to figure out how to tell a story in three seconds, or with five notes. And you know there's only so many frequencies of sound out there, and there's only 12 notes in western music [SFX: 12 notes], so to try to figure that out and find a way to make it work is hard.

[music in]

When a marketing department or advertising agency is given the task to create an audio logo, what happens? How do they do it? Typically they go to experts in the field. They’re a hybrid of an audio engineer, sound designer, and composer. But the process in which they learn about the brand and what the client wants can vary.

[music out]

Walter: Too much freedom is not really the best choice, and if you don't have any freedom, then it doesn't work out that well. That’s Walter Werzowa founder of Musikvergnuegen - a company which specializes in audio branding.

Just coming from Austria, speaking German, I only came up with a German name Musikvergnuegen, which translates into the enjoyment of music.

[music in]

Walter was on the short list to create the new audio logo for Delta Airlines. But, Delta’s agency wanted 5 companies to compete to come up with the best idea.

Walter: It suddenly turned into a cattle call. Delta needed an audio branding, and their agency called out, and we were one of them, and I mentioned to them, I think probably all of the companies will do an amazing job but it does not help a big, global corporation to call five different companies to come up with audio ideas.

[music out]

I can tell you from experience. [SFX: funny transition to a barrage of rejected Audio Logos] Listening to 150 - 2 second audio logos can be totally mind-numbing. There’s no way to have a clear head.

[SFX: bump out]

Walter: So I suggested just decide on one company. I didn't hear back from them for three or four month, and then they called again and said they apologized, and they would like to work with us.

[music in]

While some projects are started with an email, a couple phone calls, and maybe a proposal, Walter prefers a more personal connection, so he asked Delta for face-to-face a meeting at their headquarters.

Walter: So, we’re sitting in the boardroom, and they talked about their headaches going through bankruptcy, and the sound is awful up there if you're on a plane. It's not the best experience, how it can be brand that?

[music out]

It was very inspiring. I came up with the idea right there, let's just put an orchestra on the plane [SFX: plane in-flight sound gradually fade in] and tune the orchestra to the sound of the airplane, of that noise, and make something beautiful with it. [SFX: Delta]

They totally loved the idea, and that was it. So the creative process was extremely short in a sense. It was one hour of the board meeting.

But what happens when you don't have that creative epiphany and you go back to the office trying to figure it out? Almost any artist, in any medium, needs to put themselves into a creative mindset.

[music in]

Walter: The creative mind works differently on each project. The most important part is to really understand the client and the client needs because that is the story. It's not so much my creativity. It is my understanding of a problem. Some composers on my team don't like when I say this, but I don't think writing a mnemonic is composing. Writing a mnemonic is inventing audio which works for a very specific task.

In 1994, Walter created what has become arguably the most recognizable audio logo in existence. It’s said to be broadcast somewhere in the world every five minutes. We’ll get the story on that in a moment.

[music out]


[music in]

In 1994 Walter Werzowa was contacted by Intel and asked to come up with a three-second audio logo that would be used at the end of every commercial. This wasn’t a common thing at the time. In 1994 there just weren’t very many products or services other than TV and radio stations that were branding themselves with a mnemonic.

[music out]

Walter: The way Intel was created was quite a journey. It started at RJLA where Kyle Cooper, he was junior creative, called me and said he has a very interesting project for me, and he was laughing on the phone. I asked him why he was laughing, and he said, "Oh, you will see."

[music in]

So we met. Those were the days where everything was personal. I could drive my car to the office and he would show me a board. The board was six pictures of that Intel spiral video. He said if I want to do music to it, it's Intel. It's this great technology company. And then he told me it's three seconds. I was laughing saying, "You're joking."

[music out]

Obviously this was a new task for Walter. Most of the music he had composed was at least 10 seconds long. So, how could he tell a whole musical story, in just three seconds?

Walter: I realized this is a very strange task. You can barely say a meaningful sentence in three seconds.

First I thought it's easy. I tried a couple of things, and everything felt incomplete or naïve or absolutely out of place.

Then I opened the books to get inspired like a scores, and went to the Mozarts and Beatles and whatever there was available.

And it never felt good because it came too much from a musical standpoint and not from what is needed. Writing a mnemonic is not like writing a symphony. I have done that, and it's a totally different center in your brain, and in the emotion, in your heart than doing audio branding.

Then Walter had an epiphany.

[music in]

He thought, “If this was a song, the tagline was Intel Inside.” It would have four accents or four notes to mimic that phrase. Now Walter was getting somewhere.

Walter: Since I heard about Intel, the engineers and it's super precise, and in a sense there's some coldness behind that and precision, four straight eight notes would resemble that best. It's a very pum-pum-pum-pum for the rhythm, and that felt good and mathematical. Then I went to the next, what could be the melody. Since they asked for something which doesn't have any cultural connotation, it has to sound and feel the same in an arabic place than in Asia or in Europe or in Africa, I thought that there's two intervals, which are very powerful but open and don't have any zooming into just one culture, and it's the fourth and the fifth.

[music out]

He also added a single note at the beginning. [SFX: single chord] Walter called it a “Palate Cleanser” - it’s a sound helps to get your ears ready for the rest of the logo.

Walter: So basically, I constructed it. It's not even composing. I was thinking, "What works best," and that became my methodology and I explained that to Intel. Everybody said, "Well, yeah. That concept works, so how does it sound?"

And then Walter played his new audio logo for the Intel executives. [SFX: Intel] And it was a huge hit.

Walter: We all have some kind of synesthesia going on when we hear sounds and we associate colors with it, [SFX: musical sound design through this section, matching what Walter is saying] so that sound seems to be blue and has a little of electricity in there, power in there, and it's positive and inviting. There's some wooden, organic instruments in there which help to connect to the human basically being in charge of the power and technology, so it really tells a nice story.

[SFX: seamless transition into...]

[music in]

For some artists, when they’re working on a painting, sculpture, a novel, or a song - sometimes they have that Eureka moment where they realize their work is complete.

Walter: I had a couple of other versions in my sleeve if that wouldn't work, but it was clear this is it. If we present the client a great strong concept, then it's very clear this is the sound which will and can reflect your whole brand experience.

Audio logos can communicate so much in a short amount of time. In a way, it’s their simplicity that makes them effective - there is no time for your mind to wander. They create a vibe for the brand, but they can also bring back memories.

[music out]

Walter: I could play you .5 seconds of Tainted Love, [SFX: Tainted Love] of that one sound and you recognize it, or Beat It. [SFX: Beat It] So many of those sounds, you just need a split second and you know the sound. It creates all the emotion of it.

[music in]

Music brings back memories of where and when you heard a song. Audio logos bring back memories too, but they bring back memories of a brand. This happens on a subconscious level. It’s clever psychology used by advertisers.

Walter: Our research is that if a mnemonic is longer than three seconds, it works differently because we shift from hearing to listening, and if it's three seconds, it really touches our subconscious more so than anything else. If you have now an 11 second mnemonic that tells a different story, it is absolutely more conscious. People start interacting with it. They see more content, they hear more content, and that is definitely more music than a mnemonic.

[music out]

An audio logo can shape the perception of a product. Once you hear an audio logo a few times, your memory of that brand becomes deeper. And some brands even try to include familiar sounds in there audio logos, so that you think about their brand even when you’re not hearing an ad.

Walter: I always thought that Southwest, that fasten your seatbelt, clink [SFX: Southwest] is just so right on. It’s just, that is just perfect. If you fly any other airline, you hear that Southwest tone, which is so wicked that, they brand themselves on any other flight in the world, which is genius. And probably drove some of the other airlines nuts.

[music in]

Walter has created audio logos for products like Intel, Delta, Samsung, LG, Nextel, and Red Bull. He has also created the audio logo for the TBS network. [SFX: TBS Logo] And writing an audio logo for a TV network is very different, and comes with its own challenges.

Walter: Working on networks is, a different beast because it has much more variety. It could be a dynamic show before something slower and more intimate, so we have to be even more respectful to the flexibility.

[music out]

In a sense, it's easier to write for a specific company, where it's pretty clear where they're going. Programming shifts. There's different morning programming than lunch and evening and night programming.

But as traditional television changed and streaming video came into play the idea of a daytime vs primetime schedule goes away. Services like Hulu [SFX: hulu], Amazon Prime [SFX: Amazon], and Netflix [SFX: Netflix audio logo] all have audio logos.

Walter: If you would just see the animation by itself, it wouldn't be that powerful. A couple of seconds, you tell the Netflix story and people recognize it and have all the cessation. And that makes Netflix even more special.

[music in]

When you compare audio logos to visual logos, there’s a stark contrast. Nike has the iconic Swoosh that you see on every shoe and piece of apparel. The designer wants you to think and feel something, but you have to see that logo over and over - it takes repetition. It could also be easy to miss, like if you’re skimming the pages of a magazine.

But, audio logos can reach you whether you’re looking at them or not. And the best ones are catchy so you only have to hear them once. You can walk away humming them, and in a sense, you can take it with you.

[music out]

Scott: For every Nike Swoosh, there's probably 10 audio logos that are way more powerful.

I bet you a very small percentage of the population could tell you what the Nationwide visual logo looks like, that it's blue and has an eagle on it, whereas, everyone knows, [SFX: Nationwide audio logo/tagline]

Could you tell me what the State Farm logo looks like? I'm sure you know, [SFX: State Farm audio logo/tagline]

When you have a whole orchestra at your fingertips,[sfx: orchestra tuning up]and all these different sounds, it's a much richer experience than anything visual can do.

[music in]

In the film and television industry a lot of money is spent on the visuals. From incredible locations and sets, to live-action chase and fight scenes, to the CGI movie magic. It’s a common generalization that audio is an afterthought. Well, that may have been true in the past, but people are consuming entertainment in new ways. And sound is becoming more important than ever.

Scott: When you look at the actual response, whether it's film or TV, or the ad, the audio has much more of an impact on the emotion than I think budgets dictate.

I think we're seeing that pendulum swing a little bit now, because a lot less people have their eyes on the screen. There's data now that says 40% of the time, people, when they're watching television, are on a second screen, or they're not looking at the TV, they're doing something else.

So, if you're running ads on television, how effective is the audio, if 40% of the audience isn't looking?

Audio logos aren’t particularly new, but they’ve seen an explosion over the past two decades. Advertising styles and technology have advanced. And the science behind what makes sonic branding effective is more intricate than ever. It’s amazing how five notes, in three seconds, make you feel that a product is sleek, powerful, trustworthy, cutting edge, and unforgettable.

[music out]

[music in]


Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. To hear Defacto’s audio branding work, visit defactosound.com/work.

This episode was written and produced by Kevin Edds… and me, Dallas Taylor with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.

Many thanks to Scott Simonelli, founder of Veritonic. If you'd like to learn more about how audio can impact your marketing campaign check ‘em out at Veritonic.com.

And sincere thanks to Walter Werzowa from Musikvergnuegen. You can check out his work at Musikvergnuegen.com. We’ll drop a link to both companies in our description.

The music in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed. Musicbed is a full-service music licensing company making better music accessible to everyone. To listen to the music we use, visit music.20k.org.

You can find us at 20 k dot org. There, you can catch up on past episodes, read transcripts, or buy a t-shirt! If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, be sure to follow us at the username 20k org. I love hearing from you, and I read all the comments. I know, it’s insane, but I love talking about sound.

And lastly, I have one favor to ask. If you love this show and want to hear more and more episodes I challenge you to get just one friend to subscribe to twenty thousand hertz. Seriously, that’s all it will take. One extra person. So contact your mom, your best friend from college, your 4th grade science teacher, or anyone you think will love the show. Text them, call them, write on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or wherever.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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