The idea of branding goes back at least five hundred years, to when cattle were branded with hot irons by their owners. Corporate branding operates on some of the same principles today. Actually, so do some cattle forms. Ouch.
A company's logo appears on every package, advertisement and webpage in their catalogue. Eventually it's burned into the minds of their customer base.
But marketers know that brand identity is about more than catchy logos and slogans. Companies need to reach deep into our other senses, especially our sense of hearing, to bring their brand story to life at an emotional level.
In this article we'll explore the idea of sonic branding in depth. We won't shy away from the unsavory parts of advertising, but we'll also make a case for the creative and enjoyable aspects of this art form. Ultimately, we want musicians to retain their integrity without missing out on opportunities to earn a real living.
Table of Contents
Sonic branding definition
Sonic branding refers to the use of audio, in combination with a company's brand, to evoke the desired emotional response in their target audience. Companies hire composers (or a sonic branding agency) to find the right sounds for their product and marketing materials.
Building the sonic identity for a brand
A strong sonic brand identity emerges through a long period of experimentation and discussion. It's an exciting puzzle to solve. Sound designers might eventually emerge with a few notes or a single chord that comes to define how that brand sounds for decades to come.
Sound logos are just the tip of the iceberg. Composers design comprehensive sound architecture to unify background music with sound effects, ensuring that they're the same key and don't clash. We'll explore all of that shortly.
Famous sonic logos in audio branding
People respond to short musical signals based on the previous conditions where we first heard it. A single note, jingle, or sound effect can create an emotional connection that resurfaces every time.
You've probably heard of Pavlov, the scientist who used bells to condition dogs so that they responded automatically to sound. He would ring a bell before feeding the animals, and eventually the dogs started salivating at the sound of the bell, even if there was no food present. Humans are more complex than dogs, but as mammals we're wired in a similar way.
Sound logos play on this theory of classical conditioning, by associating short sound excerpts with an important moment in the customer experience. Let's have a look at some concrete examples, starting with video games.
Video game consoles and the Mario franchise
Sonic branding helps video game companies signal their values to consumers, without explicitly saying things like "we make games for kids" or "we sell first person shooters". Sonic logos play a crucial role in that process. As the example below shows, early console screens were closer to theme songs and eventually moved toward short form effects instead.
When gamers power up an Xbox console, they hear the familiar sci-fi pulsing noise that's become an integral part of the experience. The futuristic sonic identity differentiates Xbox from competitors like the Nintendo Switch, who use cute and light sound design to mirror their visual branding and younger audience demographic.
These boot-up sounds in consoles are just one example. Games have often developed an entire vocabulary of memorable sounds, including sonic logos, background music, and sound effects to deepen the brand experience. As players, we don't think about any of this in terms of branding, but that's what it is.
The video above shows some classics examples of a good sonic logo, performed by the original vocal artist of the Mario franchise, Charles Martinet:
"It's-a me, Mario!" - Mario's iconic introduction has become synonymous with the character and the franchise. He is quite literally creating a sonic identity by stating his name with a highly stylized brand voice and cadence.
"Wahoo!" - This sound of triumph plays whenever Mario wins a race and creates that emotional connection for the player, elevating the win to a feeling of personal success.
"Let's-a go!" - A rallying cry that captures Mario's determination and enthusiasm for adventure.
When a new Mario title comes out, advertisers can combine new visual assets with one of these memorable catchphrases to tap into the emotional connection that already exists in their target audience. This is a key insight into the sonic logo technique that brands use to create a lasting relationship with their customers.
Of course, the game audio includes plenty of other branded sound effects like the coin grab and mushroom power up sounds. These aren't necessarily sonic logos but they're still part of the sonic brand identity. The same can be said for some of Mario's iconic background music. All of these elements come together to create brand recall when new games are released in the future.
Sonic logos in television, Netflix, and TED talks
The NBC Chimes are a famous example of a sonic logo and are believed to be the first ever audio trademark to be accepted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Developed in the 1920s, the three-note sequence of G, E, C (which some suggest stands for General Electric Company, NBC's parent company for much of its history) was initially used to signal the transition between radio ads and programs on NBC's network. Alongside the peacock, they remain an integral part of NBC's brand identity today.
Decades later, The Netflix "Ta-Dum" sound has become an equally recognizable brand sound for millions around the world. Composer Lon Bender was asked to create something brief and unique that would accompany their animated visual logo. He used drumbeats followed by a gentle synth swell to convey the anticipation and excitement of settling down to watch a favorite video content.
Sonic identities are often created in this way, combining animated visuals with a good sonic logo to elicit emotional responses in the audience. Streaming platforms and TV networks aren't the only ones creating a sonic logo for their brand. Individual shows and series use them too.
You've probably heard the iconic four-note piano phrase is heard at the start of every TED Talk. It's become synonymous with thought-provoking ideas and inspiring talks. Composer Michael Montes created this memorable tune to evoke feelings of curiosity, wonder, and openness – all core values of the TED movement. It bears some resemblance to the THX and Dolby SFX sound logos that plays in theaters before a movie starts.
The MacOS and Windows startup chimes
The startup sound for Mac started as a single beep and evolved into a lush chord, credited to composer Jim Reekes. Introduced in 1991, it is a singular, resonant note with a slightly electronic feel, intended to signify the successful initiation of the device. Reekes, who worked as a sound designer for Apple, wanted to make a sound that was both calming and beautiful, setting a positive tone for the user's interaction with the device. It's a sound that conveys both a sense of familiarity and a promise of innovation – aligning perfectly with Apple's brand identity.
The startup sound for Windows, on the other hand, was created by acclaimed musician Brian Eno. Known for his experimental approach and ambient music, Eno was approached by Microsoft to create the startup sound for Windows 95. The brief was highly specific – it had to be inspiring, futuristic, and not more than 3.8 seconds long.
Eno, intrigued by the challenge, created a sound that, despite its brevity, is optimistic and inviting, setting the stage for the user's computing experience. The resulting piece of music, a short, upbeat motif with an echoic ending, has since become inseparable from the Windows brand, playing a significant role in shaping the brand's sonic identity.
With each new version of the Apple and Windows operating systems, the sound logos change ever so slightly. The evolution of the sound signals that a product transformation has taken place.
Sound effects in audio branding
In games, television, and film, you'll find sound effects are used to create an atmosphere that matches the visual world and narrative they're trying to convey. An existing sense of purpose is an essential part of creating a strong sonic brand. SFX play as much of a role in this as the film scores themselves.
Cinematic trailers and sound design
Trailer editors use SFX to craft a unique sonic identity for each film, setting the tone and mood for the audience's viewing experience. They might range from high-energy action cues to emotional stings, all carefully curated to match the film's genre, tone, and narrative beats.
A superhero trailer usually features powerful, heroic SFX with orchestral scores, explosions, and punches with high impact. In contrast, a psychological thriller relies more on atmospheric soundscapes and suspenseful ambience that create a sense of tension and fear. By placing these sounds strategically within the trailer, editors create a sonic experience that complements the visuals and enhances the overall emotional impact of the preview.
We've previously written about Audio Design Desk, a DAW created specifically for sound design and video. If you're a musician who creates audio for film, be sure to check out their free software.
Chimes on phones and smart speakers
Brands embed audio into their products for the same reason that filmmakers and game designers do. Audio is a valuable tool for companies who need to get their customers' attention.
Cell phones use single notes for reminders and push notifications. Users hear the memorable chime and immediately become alert. Their visual branding is the interface that you pull up after the sound draws you back to your device, just like the Pavlovian conditioning we mentioned earlier. That's the power of sound.
Amazon's smart speaker, Alexa, features a distinctive ringtone when activated. This sonic logo not only helps users recognize when Alexa is ready to assist but also serves as a subtle reminder of the device's presence in the home. Notification chimes might not trigger the same emotions and sense of nostalgia that movies or games do, but they still forge an unconscious association between the business and its product.
Once the marketing team places one of these memorable sounds into their tv or radio ads, it becomes elevated to the status of a sonic logo. Customers hear it and can't help but think of their own devices.
Theme songs and jingles
The theme song for Stranger Things, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, is an iconic example of sonic branding done right. The synth-heavy, retro-infused score perfectly captures the show's nostalgic and mysterious vibe, immediately transporting listeners to the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.
Beyond simply setting the tone for the series, the theme song also serves as a recurring motif throughout the show, subtly echoing in key scenes and episodes to reinforce the show's themes of friendship, courage, and the supernatural. This consistent use of the theme song creates a powerful sonic signature that has become inextricably linked with the Stranger Things brand.
When a theme song is applied to corporations, it's usually considered a jingle. The McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" jingle is a famous case of sonic branding in the fast food industry. Launched in 2003 as part of a global marketing campaign, the catchy five-note tune is recognized instantly around the world. The short jingle "ba da ba ba ba" plays at the end of the company's commercials and is arguably one of the most successful pieces of sonic branding ever.
Jingles tend to be a bit cringe and have declined in popularity over the years, but small local businesses still tend to use them as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the good old days. Some big companies use them as well.
Since we've covered sound logos, sound design and jingles already, let's move on to think a bit more about how musicians can get started with building a career in audio branding. We'll open with a creative technique based on the AudioCipher plugin and then proceed with some more practical career advice.
Using AudioCipher to practice sonic branding
Our vision for AudioCipher was to create a VST that lets musicians embed their ideas directly into the fabric of a song.
Users type in words, choose a key signature with rhythm settings, and drag the MIDI into their DAW. Instead of using this as a quick source of inspiration to break through creative block, you can leverage this as a technique to focus your energy on a brand and encode deeper meaning into your music. Later on, this creative process can be part of your pitch deck for clients.
Here's a couple of examples that show how we used AudioCipher to expand on an existing brand, while maintaining the feel of the original content.
This first video shows a clip of Charizard, the fire breathing Pokemon, with an equally energetic piece of music that we wrote. We turned the character's name into a short leitmotif using AudioCipher and then added the appropriate arrangement. Watch the full songwriting demo below:
In contrast, here is a second theme that we created for Pikachu. Notice how the instruments and melody are cute and bubbly, reflecting the character's personality. The ability to start with a feeling and attach it to a visual brand is the fundamental basis of audio branding, especially for film scoring.
Creating a sonic logo or musical theme can be lots of fun, even if you're not doing the work for a company. It's a good exercise in constraints. By limiting the scope of your focus to a small idea, it's easier to maintaing. Try it out for yourself by typing in the name of your favorite fictional character into AudioCipher and shaping the melody or chord progression to reflect their personality.
Let's take a look at three elements that contribute to a brand's sonic identity; sound logos, sound effects and jingles. Background music also plays a major role in the brand.
Offering sonic branding as a service
Most musicians haven't been trained to think of music in terms of marketing, and that's probably a good thing. When's the last time you met an artist who referred to their songwriting craft in terms of sonic branding? That would be silly. We create music for the joy of it. We develop signature sounds to help people recognize our music, but we don't think about that effort in terms of "improving brand recognition".
Ideas like brand identity usually come much later in the journey, if at all, when we're trying to reach an audience and establish a career for ourselves. Insofar as these concepts come up, it's usually for our own brand, rather than in service to some other company. But what if we became more marketing savvy? What could it do for our career and longevity as an artist?
Here's my theory on why we don't like appolying marketing concepts to music.
Label execs tend to reduce fans to consumers and lecture artists about brand identity, forcing pop culture icons into narrowly defined, carefully branded sounds based on formulas that have that worked in the past. The music stops evolving and loses some of its magic.
Artists don't want corporate frameworks to pollute their creativity or damage their artistic integrity. Musicians resist engaging with the music business for this reason. There's only a small pool of professional musicians who can speak the same language as marketing agencies and compose great content.
It doesn't have to be that way. Any musician can tap into their creativity to tell a story and build emotional connections with a new kind of audience. In a world where streaming revenue and album sales don't rarely provide a living wage, audio branding represents a big opportunity to earn a living wage.
The beauty of building your own sonic branding agency is that you don't have to partner with companies that you don't align with. Start by practicing with a brand you like and over time you may discover an exciting new approach to music.