Sonic branding, audio logos, and jingles are not necessarily new. Almost everyone recognizes that Apple hum when you power on a Mac, the iPhone’s familiar Marimba ringtone, and even Intel’s familiar three-note signature at the end of commercials. But the conversation about signature sounds is getting louder, and more nuanced, as consumers change how they interact with the world.
In recent months, more media and advertising agencies and publishers have begun jumping into the game. In the past, agency creative directors made most decisions about brand sounds and music. They might write a brief, gather tracks from artists and select a winner.
But this summer, iHeartMedia and British advertising giant WPP created a partnership to create a new audio branding service. Also in June, music platform Pandora created a new sonic branding consultancy called Studio Resonate that builds on the company’s scientific approach to music—dissecting melody, rhythm and psychology to help brands appeal to consumers.
There's a need for this expertise; today’s sonic strategy is far more complex. In the case of Mastercard, which released its sonic brand logo this spring, the process involved McCann advertising execs, plus teams of neurologists, psychologists, musicologists, composers and musicians. Rajamannar and his team analyzed 2,000 melodies to find a sound that could be adapted for backgrounds, trade shows, sponsorships, office music, ringtones, transaction alerts, and commercials.
Unlike a jingle, which hits people over the head and is meant to be jarring and interruptive, this would be different: a Pavlovian-style background noise, a brand’s signature sound.
Setting the tone
The payment company had a specific criterion for what qualified as the “perfect sound.” It had to be extremely simple and neutral—likable but not so fantastic that it’d be distracting. It had to be memorable and hummable and it had to fit within a broader brand identity strategy—which started in 2016, when the company dropped the Mastercard name from its logo.
The melody must be adjustable, depending on where you are located, giving the company a Mumbai version, for instance, or a Shanghai take. It had to be customizable based on what you were buying, giving a video game purchase at GameStop an 8-bit feel, perhaps, while a splurge at Tiffany & Co. would have a more luxurious tone.
Mastercard's audio logo became a passion project for Rajamannar, who grew up in a family made up of musicians. Unlike making decisions about the creative for an ad, this sonic branding project required people with musical knowledge, people who had musical sensibilities and who could analyze the components of a song to say why specifically it worked or not.
“You couldn’t just say, ‘I don’t like it,’” Rajamannar says. "I had to make sure I didn't get carried away with my own biases."
He personally traveled to music studios around the world where he'd brainstorm with artists on melodies. Sometimes, finding the right sound involved blending together bits and pieces of music from various artists. And doing that, of course, involved a delicate balance of managing creatives who sometimes got attached to their own work.
"It took a lot of patience," says Rajamannar, who listened to hundreds of melodies—so many at a time that his senses would get overwhelmed. He compared the process to smelling too many perfumes, one right after another. "You have to take a break and clear your head."
To ensure Mastercard's sound was unique, the company also hired musicologists who compared its compositions to a database of music, using artificial intelligence programs like the music app Shazam. Neuroscientists chimed in. So did famous composers and musicians, including Mike Shinoda, a singer-songwriter and founder of the band Linkin Park.