Traditionally, agencies and brands have considered audio the realm of “the creatives.” Voice over talent is auditioned, music tracks are selected, creative briefs for composers are written and editors begin editing in post production. As a result, choices are often driven by how well the audio supports the creative vision of a particular campaign, rather than how the audio is communicating the essence of a brand identity.
Audio that supports campaign creative and audio that communicates brand essence need not be mutually exclusive, but both are better served if decisions can be moved away from simply trusting our instincts, and towards developing a more objective set of criteria to guide our choices.
At iV, we focus on five measurable parameters that we believe are the keys to successful audio branding. Not only do these parameters allow for more objective decision making, they can also be used by anyone involved in developing and communicating brand identity, from creative directors and audio providers to strategic planners and brand managers. So without further adieu, here’s a brief look:
The Parameter of Congruency. Of all the parameters, congruency is the most fundamental. It considers the degree to which the audio aligns (or “fits”) with the brand itself. Of course, this implies that you already have a fundamental understanding of the brand’s essence, personality, promise and attributes. In addition to brand fit, it’s also important to consider how congruent the audio is with other branding elements – particularly the visual and verbal expressions of the brand.
The Parameter of Distinctiveness. Distinctiveness describes the degree to which an audio brand presents a clear and unmistakable impression that distinguishes it from other audio brands. This is particularly important for brands competing in similar market categories. Distinctiveness also applies to the degree that your audio brand can cut through the clutter of other sounds occupying the same sonic space. How many brands at the moment are using ukeleles, glockenspiels and nondescript male or female vocals in a light and folksy style? While these style and instrumental choices may telegraph suitable emotional attributes for the brand, finding another audio approach to accomplish the same end may help you stand out from the crowd.
The Parameter of Recognizability. This is the degree to which an audio brand can be identified again on subsequent hearings. While audio choices should work to establish a direct association with the brand, recognizability isn’t simply a function of the audio – it’s also a function of simple associative conditioning. For example, using an audio mnemonic as many times as possible, as consistently as possible, in as many contexts as possible will exponentially increase the ability to recognize the mnemonic. That said, you can certainly make choices about the audio itself that will help stack the “sonic recognizability deck” in your favor. For example, distinct sounds can increase the impact of an audio first impression, a mnemonic carried within a song or brand theme can serve to increase the likelihood that it will be recognized on subsequent hearings, and research suggests that a mnemonic of five or six notes is the optimum to produce subsequent recall.
The Parameter of Flexibility. Flexibility is the degree to which an audio brand can be modified in its execution and implementation, while still remaining distinct, recognizable and congruent. When an audio brand is flexible, it increases its ability to be applied to a wide variety of touchpoints. It also allows for adaptations which may be necessary to increase cultural relevancy and/or cross-cultural communication. When an audio brand is flexible, it can allow for my dynamic interpretations, changing with the brand itself when necessary. Additionally, flexible audio branding can provide a solution to “sonic fatigue” where a listener becomes desensitized to an audio brand over time. A fresh re-interpretation can re-engage consumers who immediately recognize the audio brand, but are now hearing it in an unfamiliar execution or context.
The Parameter of Ownability. This last parameter relates to the degree to which audio assets can be controlled, modified, applied and owned by the brand. The highest degree of ownability results when the brand actually owns the rights (both publishing and master rights) to the audio. While licensing can be a viable aspect of an overall audio branding strategy, it is rarely advisable to build an entire audio brand on licensed content. To do so would be to invest valuable resources of time and money into content that must be continually “rented.” Unless the brand has deep pockets, it will quickly find itself in a position where the costs of continuing the license will be too prohibitive, at which point any equity the brand has created through usage will be lost. Even if funds are readily available, a cost analysis would rarely demonstrate an ROI that would justify the expense of building longterm audio branding around licensed content. One further advantage of ownership is that the audio can be considered a tangible brand asset. If equity is built over time, that asset is quite literally bankable: it can generate revenue through copyright and performance royalties, or can even be used as collateral, in much the same way the Ford Motor Company did when putting up their visual logo as collateral when needed.
So, the next time you’re making decisions about what sounds will be associated with your brand, ask yourself: Is it congruent? Is it distinct? Is it recognizable? Is it flexible? Can I own it? Not only will these questions encourage more objective decisions, but they will help you develop a new set of ears, more attuned to listening to audio within a brand context.