soundmarks phone.jpg

This episode originally aired on Household Name.

Companies spend a lot of time and effort perfecting the look of their brands. But now what a brand sounds like matters just as much. We trace the history from songs to jingles to what's called sonic branding, following the creative process that led to AT&T’s iconic four-note sound logo. And we'll explore what comes next: multi-sensory marketing. Can sound change how beer tastes?


Prepared by Luke Atencio
Safari by Uncle Skeleton

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[music in]

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, I’m Dallas Taylor.

Sonic Branding is the process of creating a short, iconic sound that’s designed to be an audio representation of a company. When they’re done well, they can represent a brand in a way that visuals just can’t. [SFX: sonic brand montage]

Now, it might seem like making a sound so short would be easy right? ...but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The process can take months, and sound design and music companies may go through hundreds of ideas to finally land on one short sound. ...and keep in mind that all of these approvals have to pass through countless layers of corporate red tape, boardrooms, and the personal taste of business people. It’s an intense process where millions and millions of dollars could hang in the balance.

The fabulous podcast Household Name takes us through the process of creating one of these iconic audio logos… and if you live in the US, I’m sure you’ll recognize it. I won’t give it away, but you’ll want to stick around to hear it. Here’s host Dan Bobkoff.

Can you identify a brand from a sound?

[SFX: McDonald’s sonic logo]


Mickey D’s


I gathered some colleagues to test something called sonic branding. It’s like logos you can hear.

[SFX: NBC sonic logo]

That’s NBC

Some are easier to identify than others.

[SFX: T-Mobile sonic logo]

Cingular? AT&T? Phones?

It’s definitely a cell phone

company. I want to say Sprint, but I’m not convinced that’s right?

I was gonna say Staples.

That’s T- Mobile.

And the really good ones make you feel something…

[SFX: 20th Century Fox sonic logo]

That is 20th Century Fox.

I felt triggered as soon as the first bit of drumming happened…

I saw the logo.

I started craving popcorn.

I did know that one.

Companies have long spent a lot of money and effort perfecting their logos… like the Nike swoosh or Apple’s… apple. But now more of them are starting to do the same thing with sound.

[SFX: Netflix sonic logo]


I was gonna guess Netflix!


These are not jingles. They’re highly designed collections of sounds created to make you... buy things. So I wanted to know, how do you make one that works?

[SFX: Texaco commercial]

In the beginning, companies wrote whole songs.

Colleen: In the 40s or 50s when they had long commercials 60 second commercials and you could actually create a whole song for that commercial you could have choruses and you could have verses.

[SFX: Chevy commercial (“Performance is sweeter…”)]

Colleen Fahey is with the French sonic branding company Sixieme Son and wrote a book called Audio Branding. And Colleen says when television was new, ads were long.

Colleen: So you had enough time to say “you wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with pepsodent”.

[SFX: Pepsodent commercial]

[SFX: Rice Krispies, snap, crackle, pop commercial]

Colleen: One of the great ones was Snap Crackle Pop, Rice Krispies where each of the characters got to sing something about his own sound. His snap, his crackle and and then they did a chorus together. They had plenty of time for that. The chorus went snap crackle pop Rice Krispies

[SFX: Rice Krispies, snap, crackle, pop commercial]

Colleen: But it was a really long song. I couldn’t sing the whole thing for you...

[SFX: Rice Krispies, snap, crackle, pop commercial]

As the decades passed, TV ads got shorter… from whole songs, down to 60 seconds, to 30 seconds — sometimes just 15. And these songs turned into jingles — shorter snippets to help you remember the brand.

[SFX: Purina Cat Chow jingle]

The 80s — by the way — were an especially strong time for jingles… like a last gasp for the form.

[SFX: Stouffer’s pizza jingle]

But the 80s were also a period of transition into something new. And it’s partly because of what United Airlines did then. In the early part of the decade, it had its own conventional jingle...

[SFX: United Airlines jingle, “We get you to all the United States. You’re flying the friendly skies...”]

But by the end of the decade, United started using another piece of music.

Colleen: It's the one that goes doo-doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo-doo

[SFX: United rhapsody in blue song]

Colleen: Most people would recognize that as United Airlines’ audio brand.

An audio brand. What United is doing with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue goes beyond what advertisers did with songs and jingles.

Colleen: They use Rhapsody In Blue as a system.

A system. This is what makes this different than just a simple jingle.

Colleen: It's a very flexible piece of music. It was not written as a symphony. The symphony came many years after the first piece of music was written and had already been used by Jazz musicians and other improvisers. So it's a piece of music that had been treated flexibly since its inception.

Gershwin became United’s signature. Whatever the company was doing, you’d hear some version of this music. From ads, of course, to even TV weather forecasts…

[SFX: Early 90’s United weather forecast]

Colleen: It's also used in the corridors in Chicago Airport. There's a big corridor that links the terminal, their United terminal, to the main building and people on moving walkways hear this music when they're going into the terminal.

[SFX: O’Hare Gershwinn clip]

And then you get on the plane and there it is again.

Colleen: They have a safety video that's around the world…

[SFX: United Safety Video, “If necessary, an oxygen mask will drop from above your seat”]

Colleen: ...and in France you hear it with a little accordion and then in... I think it's New Jersey you hear it with a jazz sound and they manipulate it so it stays fresh and it feels relevant to the destination.

For United, Rhapsody in Blue isn’t a song or a jingle, it’s a full sonic brand.

Colleen: A very unified audio brand and a very strong, memorable, distinctive brand that conveys something… anticipatory and exciting about travel.

A few companies have had sonic branding down for decades. Like MGM...

[SFX: MGM sonic logo]

...or NBC.

[SFX: NBC sonic logo]

But it’s only been since the 90s that this modern form of sonic branding started to take off.

Colleen: Probably the most famous one is Intel which the idea of Intel Inside was communicated by a piece of music. And it goes like, thun thun thun thun thun.

[SFX: Intel sonic logo]

Colleen: Most people would recognize that and they've been very loyal to that piece of music.

[music in]

The Intel Inside sound was brilliant… a chip is something you don’t see, but it’s crucial to a computer, so the sound gave life to something invisible and got consumers to think about a boring computer part.

And, it’s one of the first true sonic logos.

Let’s get some terms out of the way here. In the modern world of audio branding, there are sonic logos and sonic brands. You can think of the sonic brand as the whole package… just like a company has its own fonts and colors. The logo is the distillation of all that… the centerpiece. Visually, it’s a symbol. In audio, it’s a short, memorable sound that triggers recognition like Pavlov’s dog.

[SFX: Bell sound]

Brands want us to remember them and feel good about them.

More and more companies want sonic brands because we’re increasingly interacting with brands in non-visual ways. Like talking to a smart speaker. Or maybe using Apple Pay or Google Pay instead of a physical credit card. In fact, most of the big credit card companies are developing sounds that will play when you buy something.

So, how do you make a sonic brand that works? We’ll find out what the process was like for one of the world’s biggest brands. After this.

[music out]


We’re back

And I’ve come to the offices of Man Made Music in lower Manhattan because this is one place sonic brands are born.

[SFX: Ambience of Danni on keyboard]

Danni: That’s their logo [SFX: keyboard plays]

This is Danni Venne. She’s the head of creative at Man Made, so she works on a lot of the music that’s in the background of our lives.

Danni: I just like that one… [SFX: keyboard plays]

Man Made makes many of the themes you hear on TV. Like for CBS News...

[SFX: CBS News theme]

...or ESPN.

[SFX: ESPN theme]

Or, sometimes they’ll update iconic themes for new eras.

Danni: We’ve done the… HBO theme… have you heard that before? The [SFX: logo plays] So we’ve done so many versions of that. We didn’t write that one, but that’s kind of our bread and butter is that we take a melody and we know how to like, recontextualize it.

But now it’s not just TV networks calling. Brands want music. Lots of it. They want sonic logos for all sorts of reasons.

Like, take AT&T. It thought a sonic brand might help solve some problems.

AT&T came to Man Made Music in 2010. Back then, the company had been enjoying one big advantage… it was the only cell phone company in the US where you could get an iPhone. But at the time, its customers weren’t too happy with AT&T.

Danni: AT&T became even a bigger punching bag ‘cause it was dropping all the calls.

Customers who had switched to AT&T in order to get the iPhone were complaining about it online. Never mind that the problem was mostly fixed by this point. Reputations can lag reality. One customer had even made a parody video to YouTube that looks like an Apple ad with the white background and the product shots. But then the text is all things like, “It’s a revolutionary device crippled by poor service” and this one “with less bars in more places!”

So AT&T set out to overhaul its image… photos, slogans, fonts, ads and sounds.This was around the time other phone companies were about to sell the iPhone. And it had another problem. Danni said that when AT&T ran expensive ads on TV, few people could remember what the ad was for.

Danni: They'd see it and they say who was that for and then say I don't know Verizon? IBM? You know, MetLife? It wouldn't… They… It would rarely get attributed to AT&T.

Danni: One of the first things we asked AT&T when they were in the room was, why are you interested in a sonic identity?

Danni needed AT&T to articulate exactly how the company wanted to be perceived. Did it want to come across as more reliable? Higher tech? Less corporate? More… likeable?

Danni: If we don't understand that then we're just, you know throwing stuff at the wall. Hoping that it's going to stick. What's the problem you're trying to solve?

After a lot of back and forth, AT&T came back and said… it wanted to come across as… human.

Danni: At the top of the brief, a question: what is the sound of humanity? Which is… very lofty.

Yeah. Sounds… pretty big.

Danni: Very lofty. But, the sound of humanity and that as a question with the additional language that we had in the references at least focused it in a little bit more on what that could be.

If AT&T sounded human, maybe customers would trust it more. And new customers might hear the sound logo and get a better impression of AT&T. A company that sounded friendly, and likeable.

Danni: Of course that can be interpreted a million different ways. But just at the very top how did… where were we shooting? The sound of humanity.

So, to narrow it down, Danni asked AT&T executives some questions. Things like… “what do you hate about your competitors?” Once all that was settled, Danni looked to culture for inspiration. And back in 2010, artisanal products were all the rage. Handmade things that looked authentic, and not mass produced perfection.

Danni: Things like I think Mast chocolate bars head hand wrapped chocolate, right? So, you know craftsman in some warehouse in Brooklyn, you know, making…

Just like AT&T

Danni: Just like AT&T, exactly. But you know someone's in Brooklyn doing their small batch pickles or something, right, with the handcrafted label. And like… but that that sense of like personal touch and humanity was like kind of infusing a lot of culture at the time.

But even that concept was broad. Like… AT&T is artisanal chocolate? That doesn’t make sense!

So, before her team started composing their own tracks, Danni played some music she had on hand—stuff they didn’t compose—but they just wanted to get the client’s reactions. In this case, they wanted a sense of what kind of raw, authentic humanity AT&T wanted. Like, did it want it to feel high-stakes and dramatic? Like, fireman rescues baby from a burning building humanity?


Danni: This is too “heart on your sleeve…” you know, like..

[Danni laughs]

Or… math genius performs complicated calculus on a chalkboard humanity?

Danni: I do like this one because it feels smart.

So, they’re sitting around, listening and giving their feedback. The first track sounded too lofty and dramatic, with its sweeping crescendos and emotional strings. And the second one, the “math genius” music, was too structured and clean.

Danni: And as the exploration developed, we became more focused on expressing this humanity through imperfection. So instruments and sounds that you could hear real people playing real instruments. Right? And that became the way humanity was manifested, you know? First it sounds lofty, like we're about to have something giant, you know. But it actually became a little more raw.

So, with that in mind, Danni and the team finally started writing their own music for AT&T. A lot of music. And what they were trying to create is something they call an “anthem.”

Danni: All the anthem demos need to be thematic. They need to have a melody or something that you can sing back, or something that you can remember, some sort of hook. Right? And that hook, that melody, that theme, that becomes what eventually gets boiled down to a sonic logo.

The sonic logo might be just a few notes embedded in the larger anthem, which could be anything from 20 seconds to two minutes long.

Danni: But any of these demos that we start writing... and a big brand like AT&T… it’s very conceivable that we might write up to 20 or 30 anthem demos. Not all of them see the light of day, in fact most of them don't get to the client.

Danni played us some of those early tracks and explained why they didn’t make the cut. Like, her first try was almost too human. It sounded too much like the theme song of a kid’s TV show, or the joyful, hoppy ending of a rom com.

[SFX: Danni scene tape [“Hey! Dah dah dah dah dah!”]]

Danni: It’s a really nice sound, song. It’s got vocals in it. What it might not do, is it might not speak to this idea of serious business, right?

The team’s next try went too far in the other direction. The music wasn’t grounded enough. The chord progressions were a little too exciting for AT&T’s taste.

Danni: Um, let me go to another one that did not make it.


Danni: Artful fade! Yeah, like it’s… it’s more dramatic, right?

Sounds a lot like a film score

Danni: Yeah, exactly. So trying to take this humanity things very differently there. And I mean hindsight, I can remember why that doesn’t work. It’s kind of… Maybe it’s kind of obvious, right? It’s… it wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s very Lord of the Rings.

A little ominous too. My call might drop...

At some point, the team hit a creative block. Danni just wasn’t hearing any sonic logos in these anthems.

Then one day, Danni was playing some of the drafts for her boss, Joel. And four notes caught his attention.

Danni: What Joel heard, was this...

[SFX: Scene tape [BAG-PIPES]]

Danni: You hear the melody, and it’s just repeat repeat repeat repeat. And that was like an interesting, iconic sort of melody.

[SFX: Scene tape [MUSIC PLAYS]]

Danni: That became eventually the sonic logo. That kind of idea. Just those four notes.

And those four notes… might sound familiar.


Danni: Not a very linear process to get there, you know. We heard a theme that we thought was cool, we heard something that had the momentum and the optimism that felt like big business and a melody that we liked and we said, how do we make something that gets a lot of people on board with it being both approachable and friendly and consumer and kind of ragtag, but still feels kind of interesting and big. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is the theme. The melody the melody the melody.

Now that Danni and her team had their melody — their sonic logo — they could start thinking about other things. Like what instruments would make the track sound most “human.” She went to a store in Midtown Manhattan that sold a bunch of vintage instruments. Quirky-sounding things, like clavinet... a wurlitzer. And some others I didn’t expect to hear in an AT&T logo…

Danni: And I, I swear to God we recorded a bagpipe player. I'll show you that…

For AT&T?

Danni: Yes, they there’s a bagpipe on there.

Is that an easter egg? It’s like, hidden in there somewhere?

Danni: Yeah [laughs]

Danni wanted the anthem to sound real. Real people on real instruments. This is not programmed perfection in a computer.

[SFX: Scene tape [MUSIC PLAYING]]

Danni: And it’s interesting, when I listen to this again, you can hear… every so often I can hear a piano chord that’s just a fraction late.

[SFX: Scene tape [MUSIC PLAYING]]

Is that on purpose?

Danni: Just because it’s played… Aaron is playing there…

Man Made

Danni: Yeah, exactly it was very man-made

How the anthem was recorded mattered too.

Danni: You can even hear like we must have recorded these instruments together. Can you hear kind of the drums in the background? Kind of the way records used to be made… you’re all in a room, playing together.

Finally, after weeks of writing, recording, and mixing, Danni and her team had AT&T’s anthem.

[SFX: AT&T anthem -- make sure it’s the original one]

And tying the whole thing together were four notes. The sonic logo.

[SFX: Archival from end of AT&T ad with the sonic logo]

It took 18 months for Man Made to finish the whole AT&T sonic brand. It’s become a case study for the company. Because in the end, variations on those four notes were used as ringtones, hold music, ad themes, even before the CEO got on stage at events. It was a whole system.

A big reason sonic branding works is because of repetition. The more you hear something, the more familiar it becomes, and the more you tend to like it.

And these sounds don’t take long to worm into our minds. One study played a jingle alongside a product just a couple of times. And the next time participants heard that sound, they instinctively started looking for that product.

So on our journey from songs to jingles to sonic brands, that’s the current science. But I called up Charles Spence because he’s working on what comes next.

Charles: I'm an experimental psychologist and a gastro physicist working out of Oxford University. Psychologist interested in the sensors and the application of brain science to the real world.

For a while now, he’s worked on the subtle sounds products make that you might not even realize are engineered to create emotion. Like with Axe deodorant.

Charles: We we worked on the design of a new spraying sound so that it would be perceived as more efficacious.

That's actually the design of the packaging is a sonic experience.

Charles: That's right something that we when we think whenever we interact with or use, open, close anything really it makes a sound. It's always there in the background. Our brain picks it up and uses that to infer what's going on. What are we feeling, what's happening.

Like a car door… our brains interpret sounds as signaling solid, high quality.

[SFX: High quality car door closing sound]

Or maybe tinny, and cheap.

[SFX: tinny, cheap car door closing sound]

But Charles is at the forefront of something even more complex. He’s studying how one sense can affect another. And how that might change how we experience a brand and its products. Like can a sound change the way something tastes?

Charles: To be able to bring out the sweet or sweetness or bitterness on the palette simply through the look of the video the shapes the colors on the video and also the instrumentation of that specially designed track.

And so what you're saying, is that as I drink this beer or drink this coffee if I hear this specially designed sound it actually literally changes my sense of the taste, right?

Charles: Yes. Not always, not for everyone but for many people it just changes the taste and so I've just been back from two weeks getting around Europe. Sort of demonstrating this what we call sort of sonic seasoning. Giving people… my favorite one is giving people kind of sour, sour kid sweets.

Charles: And then we have the some very sweet music which is very tinkling and high-pitched specially designed from a London design student…

[SFX: Sweet music]

Spence: And then we have some world's sourest music.

[SFX: sour music]

Charles: It's kind of mathematically transformed Argentinian Tango…And while people are eating one and the same sweet and sour sweet then as we change as I change the music you can sort of see their faces pucker up as I play the sour music.

Charles has collected lots of music that pairs with certain tastes. Like this one, he says, is spicy.

[SFX: Spicy music]

Charles worked with Starbucks on a piece of music that’d pair with instant coffee in the UK. He worked with Stella Artois and the Roots on this track that was supposed to go with the taste of the beer. It’s called sweet ‘til the bitter end.

[SFX: Stella Artois Roots music]

Charles: We've been working with a… in a chain of Belgian chocolate shops with a kind of completely mad, but brilliant chocolatier from Belgium in his chocolate shop with his amazing Belgian chocolates making his chocolates taste creamier with a kind of creamy track that's been specially created.

Or maybe, he says, sweet music could allow food companies to use less sugar. Charles says he can’t yet use music to turn water into wine, but he’s working on it.

A few years ago, I was in a hotel that had a signature smell. The shampoo smelled just like the lobby. And after talking with Charles, I can imagine a time soon when a brand has coordinated everything… the flavors, the scents, the sounds and music and colors… all to make you buy things and feel better about it.

Or maybe it’ll all just be ASMR.

Charles: These are autonomous sensory meridian response kind of tingle you get down the back of your neck and this kind of is having a relaxing pleasurable experience. Almost a feeling triggered by sound. And we can study the particular kinds of sounds. And it does seem to be sounds that work really well.

Charles: The sounds of whispering gently or rattling of paper. There are particular sort of sounds that trigger these ASMR responses and can we incorporate things like that into sonic logos and jingles in order to kind of broaden the array of what that sonic logo can do.

I don’t know if I’m ready for a world with whispered ASMR sonic logos that have been designed to make my drink taste sweeter in a bottle that has been engineered to sound like refreshment. Where everyone behind me knows what credit card I have because of the sound it made at the register. But I guess we’re pretty much there already aren’t we?

So in the meantime, let’s see if this ASMR thing works…

[whispers] Subscribe to Household Name wherever you get your podcasts.

That was weird.

[music in]

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at Defacto Sound dot com.

This episode originally aired on Household Name, a podcast that tells the surprising stories behind the biggest household name brands. Go subscribe.

The episode was produced by Dan Bobkoff, with Sarah Wyman, Amy Pedulla, Jennifer Sigl, Gianna Palmer, John DeLore, Casey Holford, and Chris Bannon. Household is a production of Insider Audio.

Thanks to Curtis Perry and Marcus Mendes from twitter for helping us name this episode. If you’d like to help us name future episodes, or want to tell us your favorite sonic logo, tell us on Facebook, Twitter, or by writing hi at 20 kay dot org.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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