Sonic Branding Harnessing the Power of Sound

Award-winning composer Joel Beckerman’s Man Made Music leverages the power of sound to create emotive brand experiences

Let’s start with an age-old question: if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, is there sound? The scientific answer is no: while sound waves are created and impulses are sent through the air, there is only silence, unless the sound waves hit an eardrum, triggering the electrical activity and vibrations that result in the perception of sound. To put it another way, sound is interactive – a collaboration of sorts between the producer and the consumer. It is that interactive experience that is the essence of what SGR client Man Made Music, Inc. is all about.

The Power of Sound

How powerful is sound? As an experiment, try watching your favorite music video (let’s say Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”) without the sound. Or watch the classic movies Jaws or Star Wars stripped of their iconic soundtracks. The experiences are just not the same. I recall one reviewer of Ghostbusters II who complained that the sequel did not have enough of the Ghostbusters catchy theme song.

Sound can inform: the wail of the sirens tells you that there is a crisis of some kind and emergency vehicles are on the way. Sound can sway you: you would rather not sit next to the person coughing and sneezing, so you sit someplace else. Sound can instantly transport you: a song can bring you back to the first dance at your wedding or your prom (hopefully a good memory). Sound can prompt you, such as with a mnemonic: many of a certain age recall how a bill becomes a law thanks to Schoolhouse Rock!

Sound can inspire, such as with the music at church. Sound can influence: you hear the jingle of the ice cream truck and, suddenly, you have a Pavlovian reaction and salivate for that Popsicle or ice cream cone. And sound can identify: let’s go back to where we started – you hear the bass notes from the Jaws theme “dun-dun! dun-dun! dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, da-na-na” and you immediately think Jaws and menacing sharks (I know you can hear the actual riff in your head, which is in and of itself a prime example of the power of sound).

The Man Made Music Process

Man Made Music’s objective is to harness all of these attributes of sound to create an overarching sonic branding experience. Its founder, Joel Beckerman, believes that music and sound are not being used to their full potential. Many companies do not recognize or fully appreciate the  power of sound. A brand can latch onto a current hit song or hot singer and think it is creating a sonic experience by leveraging that popularity and using either (or both) in an ad campaign. But, in Joel’s opinion, that is a wasted opportunity. The song and the singer have a life of their own independent of the brand. They may fade away into a distant memory without any lasting impact, and that chance to use sound to create a distinctive brand identity will have disappeared.

Instead, Man Made Music implements an intellectual and strategic approach using sound to create an emotional story that will become synonymous with the brand. Sound will create a connection with the brand and a strong, consistent and ownable identity that can be used in different ways across different aspects or touch points of the brand.

Man Made Music delves deeply into the story the client wants to tell and into all aspects of the brand. It uses a proprietary, seven-step, strategic approach to translate that story into sound. This is the highly creative part of the process. While there is no formula, there are some basics that can be applied. For example, strings can suggest passion or warmth, horns can indicate power or bravery, drums can create a primal feeling, and an electric guitar can denote rebellion and energy. Different rhythms, beats, tempos and syncopation also matter – think about the elegant . waltz timing versus an upbeat polka or a sexy salsa. The Man Made Music team includes club DJs, arrangers, writers, sound engineers, designers and musicians from all kinds of musical, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Each one brings his or her years of experience and a different dimension and musicality to the process.

The Elements of Sonic Branding: Jingles, Anthems and Logos

Most of us equate “sonic branding” with a jingle. Recall the “plop-plop-fizz-fizz” of the Alka-Seltzer “what a relief it is” jingle. But jingles, as fun and as catchy as they can be, are not the state of the art for sonic branding. They are memorable for a particular product but not meaningful as part of the whole brand story. Man Made Music aims to tell a brand’s story by developing an “anthem” – a long-form expression of the story, not unlike a country’s national anthem. The anthem can be adapted and reinvented for all types of uses surrounding the brand, such as ads, tradeshows, retail stores and sponsorship opportunities. The brand’s story can also be distilled into a short form – a few notes that become the “sonic logo” for the brand. The three notes you hear when you see the NBC peacock symbol are an example of a logo – and also an example of the accidental or haphazard use of sound. Those three tones were developed in the 1920s to notify the viewer of the station’s identification, which was a requirement at the time. The chimes are recognizable now as a result of the passage of time and endless repetition, but they were not originally developed as part of an overall sonic strategy.

Sample Projects

Man Made Music developed the anthem for AT&T as well as the four-note logo that you hear at the end of all AT&T ads. The intent was to tell a story that was humanizing, purposeful and inventive. That sonic identity is being incorporated into the AT&T retail-store experience (including the company’s flagship innovation store in Chicago), into ringtones, and at AT&T-sponsored venues.

The sonic branding strategy for AT&T has been so successful that a second AT&T/Man Made Music collaboration is underway. AT&T has charged Man Made Music with enhancing the in-game fan experience at AT&T Stadium, formerly Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, Texas. Musical moments will refl ect what is going on in the game and be part of interactive kiosks around the stadium.

Football was the subject of yet another Man Made Music project: the Super Bowl on NBC. NBC approached Joel and his team to modernize the style of John Williams’s (think Star Wars and Jaws) “Wide Receiver” theme song and to extend the theme to additional uses and other story points in the game. Man Made Music provided NBC with eight derivative works based on “Wide Receiver” for its broadcast of the 2008 Super Bowl. In 2012, NBC turned to Man Made Music again, just a few weeks before kickoff. Man Made Music gave NBC  about 72 sound bites of music in different lengths, styles and moods that NBC could incorporate into the many situations that arise during the course of America’s game.

Man Made Music also developed the anthem for Univision. Univision was a unique and challenging project that required building a unified, sonic identity that bridged diverse Spanish-speaking peoples (Mexican, Puerto Rican and Caribbean, to name a few) and had to take into account a unique combination of Latino and American cultural experiences. The multitalented Man Made Music staff created a vibrant and celebratory anthem that draws on a variety of cultural traditions and influences.

What’s Next?

In April, CEO Joel Beckerman was the keynote speaker at MIT’s Grand Hack. The Grand Hack is one of the largest health “hackathons” in the world – a weekend-long event where clinicians, engineers, designers, developers and businesspeople get together to tackle real healthcare challenges. The focus of Joel’s presentation: alarm or sound fatigue. Nineteen out of 20 hospitals report alarm fatigue as a major concern that contributes to in-hospital deaths. Hospitals and equipment manufacturers use sounds to alert doctors and nurses to changes in their patients’ conditions. The most insistent and strident sounds can signify a crisis demanding immediate attention. But what happens when there are constant sounds and only a few distinctions among the beeps, blips, buzzes and alarms? All that sound becomes white noise, fading into the background. Hospital workers become so accustomed to the constant drone that they subconsciously ignore the sound, sometimes to the detriment of their patients and the high level of care that hospitals strive to provide.

Conclusion

Sound is instrumental (pun intended) in creating an experience that captures your imagination and engages you. Do you consciously notice all of the uses of sound around you? Probably not, but that is the point. If sound becomes such an integral part of the experience that you recognize its uniqueness and use it to identify an idea, product or company, then Man Made Music has achieved its objective and created that sonic brand.