Rock Brand

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By: Daron Murphy | June 1, 2009

Sonic ID rethinks advertising with next-generation jingles. ——

WE ALL KNOW WHAT THE BP logo looks like. But how does it sound? Of all the jingle makers out there, Sonic ID, an audio branding firm with one foot in the business world and the other in rock ’n’ roll, is particularly well-suited to find out.

Sonic ID’s current lineup came together in January 2008, when two marketing experts—Noel Franus, a one-time senior brand strategist at Sun Microsystems, and Daniel Kirby of the London branding agency DKPM—partnered with Martyn Ware, founder of British new-wave music groups the Human League and Heaven 17. Theirs is a new take on an old idea. “You’d almost never change the essence of a brand’s visual logo from ad campaign to ad campaign,” explains Franus, the outfit’s managing director. “But companies do that with sound all the time.” Coca-Cola’s logo, for example, has remained virtually unchanged since 1885, when the company’s bookkeeper first showed his talent for freehand Spencerian Script. The McDonald’s Golden Arches (more widely recognizable than the Christian cross, according to Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation) have endured since their creation in 1962.

But thinking back to the musical jingles of yesteryear, only a few actively survive. (Props to Oscar Hanson, Earnest la Prada, and Philip Carlin, who wrote the NBC chimes in 1929—the first audio trademark ever patented, and still in use today.) And even the most successful modern-day “sonic mnemonics,” as they’re called in the marketing department, aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as logos, which show up on everything from TV and print ads to retail stores and the products themselves. The sonic cue, or “sting,” most lauded for its stickiness is the oft-imitated four-note “Intel Inside” theme, written in 1994 by Austrian composer Walter Werzowa. At its peak five years ago—during a $350 million Intel ad campaign—the now-classic sting was being played somewhere in the world once every five minutes. But even then, it was only experienced through TV commercials. For the team at Sonic ID, this is a marketing model destined to become obsolete. They’re thinking bigger. “We have so many devices that beep at us,” says Ware, Sonic ID’s creative director. “Without a comprehensive approach to sound, you can’t find a way to be meaningful.”

Ware has been experimenting with what he calls “immersive sound environments” for the past decade. In 1999, he created a 3-D surround-sound auditorium at England’s National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield. Then, along with partner Vince Clarke (another rock legend, of Erasure and Yaz fame), Ware formed a touring company, Illustrious, to use his “sound field” technology in live events, from a sonic art installation at the Esplanade de Belles Artes in Mexico City to a “branded space” in Tokyo for the launch of a men’s cologne by Japanese cosmetics company Kenzo. Now he’d like to bring the concept of a unified aural experience to clients in all aspects of the commercial world.

“We don’t do spas,” explains Ware. “And it’s not whale songs. We’re talking about creating mood-altering environments.” Over the course of an international conference call—Franus helms the company’s Portland, Oregon headquarters while Ware and Kirby (who have been working together since 2004) are based in London—Franus explains that their services could be as simple as fixing the problem of “a CEO getting sick of the music on hold” to a comprehensive overhaul of how a company identifies itself through sound—something that goes beyond “three-second stings at the end of a commercial.” Sonic ID would love to revamp the indicator tones a car makes or develop a refrigerator that tells you when you’re about to run out of milk. They might create music that makes a customer want to stay inside a retail store, or even weave soothing ambient textures to allay the unpleasantness of going to the dentist. “We would be able to prime people to diminish the memory of having to endure loud, horrible noises from what look like ancient torture devices,” says Franus.

In the short time they’ve been in business, Sonic ID has already created music and mnemonics for huge British corporations like BP and First Direct bank (a subsidiary of HSBC). Their dual experience helps, explains Franus: “Not only do we know how to make the stuff, we know how to talk to clients in their own language.” Jargony techniques like “mood boards,” for instance—sonic textures evoking different feelings and emotions—steer clients toward identifying their product’s personality and sound.

But still, Sonic ID’s partners haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate with a company ready to take their concept all the way. “No one’s gone for the full package,” explains Ware. “Not a lot of CFOs wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, I need a strategic sound approach for all our environments.’ There aren’t so many people ready to put their jobs on the line to take that kind of risk.” But the partners at Sonic ID are, and that sets them apart from older, more established music houses like Sonicbrand in the UK or American stalwart Elias Arts, whose audio identity department Franus joined as head of strategy in 2007 before starting his current venture.

“Martyn understands inherently that music and sound—like visual design—is a language that can solve business and social problems as well,” says Franus. “Take the hybrid car problem. Thousands of people are hurt or killed each year because they don’t hear that Prius approaching. [A new sound] will save lives, and as it grows it will eventually become the sonic icon and emotional beacon for the concept of green transit as a whole.”

Will this be enough to convince the CFOs? “I’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest musicians,” says Ware, “and I know that certain polyphonic chord sequences have an effect on emotions.” Maybe it’s that journeyman’s skill as a hit songwriter, composer, and high-profile producer that distinguishes Sonic ID from the competitors. Or perhaps, as someone who can list “pop star” on his resume, Ware has tapped into that precious element so often elusive to branding executives: coolness. “If you have the right curatorial approach you can make a brand cool with sound,” says Ware. “And I think there’s a lot of benefit to being perceived as cool.” Now that sounds about right. Daron Murphy is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician.