RAB guide to using sonic branding
Using Sonic Brand Triggers (SBTs)
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Views from a composer, an agency creative director, an academic, and a specialist radio producer
"You can call it Sonic Brand Triggers, you can call it whatever you want, but I think people instinctively absorb and replay sounds that entertain them or move them or remind them of things. I think that’s why we remember hymns and pop songs – including the words.
Jingles and catchphrases may have gone out, but there are advertising campaigns out there still using sound to make people remember brands. It’s a very powerful territory"
Charlie Higson, writer, actor, producer, The Fast Show
Some examples of Sonic Brand Triggers:
- Carphone Warehouse theme music by Stereo MCs
- Sound component of Intel logo
- "It’s all for you – BBC Radio 2"
- "Where in the world? PC World"
- "I’m a secret lemonade drinker – R Whites"
- "Papa?" "Nicole?"
- The Hamlet theme (Air on a G String)
- "For hands that do dishes to feel soft as your face, choose mild green Fairy Liquid"
- "Army Soldier - (SFX Boots stamping to attention) - Be The Best"
- British Airways theme from "Lachme" by Delibes
- "Open up, open up…Nescaf…"
- "There may be trouble ahead …" (Allied Dunbar)
- "Oh we are the lads from Country Life, and you’ll never put a better bit o’ butter on your knife"
- "Do the Shake & Vac and put the freshness back"
All these phrases are sounds which, when heard, provoke a reaction in the listener – because they are recognised and associated to a greater or lesser extent with the brand in question.
Sounds can evoke brands, and affect the way people perceive them.
What are SBTs and what do they do?
SBTs use sound, but there are brands triggered by other senses
- visual: e.g. company logos, little red telephone (Direct Line), jar for Nescaf; most contemporary brand triggers are visual
- taste: e.g. the taste of the Burger King Whopper
- smell: all identifiable perfumes do this
Some brands work in more than one sense - in the cases of Intel and Direct Line, their brand identity evokes in both vision and sound (which each evoke each other – you hear the tune, you see the visual)
There are many familiar sounds out in the real world which consumers do not relate to any particular brand – many TV advertising theme tunes seem very familiar but what was the brand? Sonic Triggers can become linked to brands over time through repetition; they can also lose their brand linkage over time, through lack of repetition (e.g. the Haddaway track "It’s my life", which used to be tightly linked to Tampax advertising)
Importantly, SBTs elicit a response of some kind, rather than just existing for their own sake; the responses vary – making the consumer feel something, think something, know something, be reminded of something, feel closer to something, associate with something (or associate something with something else)… an SBT which doesn’t trigger a response clearly needs development
SBTs vary in the way they evoke the brand. While some, like the British Airways theme, are very "soft sell" and evocative, others are much more urgent and persuasive. Some are linked to the brand by association (Papa & Nicole), where others are explicitly linked to the brandname (PC World) – the latter style is typically less subtle, but offers a very short route to an effective SBT.
So an SBT is something which works in sound (words, music, noises) to trigger a response in the consumer relating to a given brand.
Some cousins of the Sonic Brand Trigger
In the world of advertising this is almost a pejorative term; local advertisers use jingles all the time, often in a deliberate ploy to make the listener remember their name or telephone number; people in the advertising business acknowledge the power of the jingle but express deep concern that conventional jingles, because they are cheesy and irritating almost by definition, are inappropriate for national brands
Catchphrases never really left the culture but they did, like jingles, become associated with old-fashioned cheesiness ("Nice to see you, to see you nice"); however they recently returned with a vengeance thanks to the writers and performers of The Fast Show – phrases like "Suit you sir" and "…which was nice" entered the language some time ago and are still commonly heard; "Ambassador, you spoil us" is a contemporary advertising catchphrase
the known voice
Rather like faces, voices become known and linked to certain people; we all personally know people whose voices we would recognise instantly, even if they were speaking a foreign language; the "brand" here is the person … a well-known contemporary example is Jonathan Ross, whose brand values are evoked as soon as people recognise his voice
the station ident
All radio stations run identifying sounds in specific places during their programming, which define the station and also help to structure the output; over time these idents become an entirely familiar part of the programming stream with the result that they reinforce the identity and brand values of the station continually in an almost subliminal way
the catchy pop tune/the hookline
Music producers know that some bits of music are basically more catchy or memorable than others (though why is another matter); radio has a long track record in helping to make records memorable, and listeners become – almost unconsciously – familiar with tunes and lyrics.
- German word meaning, literally, an "ear-worm"; refers to the way in which sounds can enter the brain via the ear .... and is also suggestive of how invasive this can be, and how difficult such sounds are to get back out again
Why are they so important?
SBTs are important for four reasons:
They allow unmistakable branding
consumers famously don’t care which brand an advertisement is for – a Sonic Brand Trigger implicitly confirms the identity of the brand (ads where the brand is not recalled are of questionable value)
They go in "under the radar"
they allow an advertiser to deliver a branded 30 second message without requiring the attention of the listener; SBTs are recalled easily, even by those listening who felt they were paying little or no attention
They can operate continually at the emotional level
most SBTs are musical and evocative rather than verbal and hard-sell; this allows them to be repeated continually, gradually adapting the consumer’s brand perceptions
They can create "virtual TV"
many SBTs are created initially on TV (example: Diet Coke’s "11.30 Diet Coke break") and these can often be successfully adapted for radio, with consequent benefits in terms of increasing frequency and campaign longevity
This is good news for brands, particularly in the following categories:
Brands under pressure from competitive noise
using an SBT ensures that every advertising message is effectively branded, thus maximising branded presence in the mind of the consumer ("There’s a great deal going on at Dixon’s")
Brands with little "news" for consumers
there are many brands, typically in the fmcg area, where the brand name and proposition are widely known, but there is nothing genuinely new to say about the brand: in cases like these, sounds and music can create high levels of awareness with a very generic message (this was the territory of traditional jingles like "Beanz Meanz Heinz")
Brands of "low interest" or with a long purchase cycle
in areas such as, for example, personal finance the consumer tends to resist the overtures of advertisers seeking his attention, until such time as he is actively in the market; using an SBT allows basic branded communication without requiring the explicit attention of the consumer – by the time the consumer comes in to the market, the SBT has built a large advance share of mind (Carphone Warehouse model)
SBTs are particularly important for radio, too. On the one hand, they allow ads to be excellently branded in a medium where there are still many weakly branded commercials (the absence of visuals means that the usual branding devices, e.g. colour cues, are unavailable for many brands). On the other hand, radio is ideal as an intrusive branding medium, because the listeners are typically passive – they sit through radio messages in real time, and very rarely zap the ads.
|How many national radio advertisers use SBTs? (Currently, not many) |
|No music / No Sonic Brand Trigger ||85.1% |
|Some use of music ||9.2% |
|Background music ||2.3% |
|"Sonic logo" ||2.4% |
|Music at end ||0.9% |
|Whole ad based on music ||0.1% |
Base: 905 ads logged & coded on Radio Advertising Archive in 1997
This analysis is based on a random cross section of radio commercials on the Radio Advertising Archive from 1997. The Archive digitally logs and stores commercials which are sent through the national distribution systems. Local ads are therefore under-represented and this probably has an effect on the results. The Archive can be contacted on 0171 306 2599.
How does an advertiser acquire an SBT?
There is little tradition of using SBTs in the advertising business, so most have been invented almost by accident – this is certainly true of the more subtle musical properties such as British Airways Lachme theme, whose true power as an SBT only became apparent over time.
But by contrast, the new Nescaf thematic ("open up, open up … Nescaf") seems to have been deliberately created to operate as an effective and subtly evocative SBT.
We know of various conditions which help to create an effective SBT
Work in the long term
It takes time for a brand trigger in any medium to become truly linked to the brand, and radio is no exception; this is particularly true where the SBT is a borrowed property (e.g. an existing song, such as Allied Dunbar’s use of "Let’s face the music and dance"); the long term requirement also means that your SBT must be pleasant enough and adaptable enough to work consistently over time
Establish the TV property first
This is a strategy adopted by many advertisers (e.g. Diet Coke, Nationwide Building Society), and exemplifies the point that there has to be an initial "investment phase" during which the brand property, and the SBT within it, are established ( it is worth remembering that the longest-lasting SBTs from the past were created on the back of campaign weights which these days would be unaffordable)
There is no doubt that an SBT which could belong to any brand in the sector will never be as an unmistakable brand property; the ultimate goal would be, ideally, an SBT which could not be recalled without thinking of the brand in question (Norwich Union’s new "You can’t touch me, I’m part of the Union" campaign seems designed to achieve this)
Clarity about requirements
What does the SBT need to do in the marketing mix? does it have to build the personaltiy of the brand, or just be consonant with it? does it have to build familarity or actually change perceptions of the brand? how simple can we keep it (as ever, the simpler the better)?
Try the jingle test
Attempting to write your own jingle could well help you to decide what it is you want to say; if you’re happy with the content, an agency or music production specialist would doubtless relish the task of making your creation less cheesy!
Some SBTs have an uncanny knack of staying in the conscious memory (e.g. "I’m a secret lemonade drinker") but most, in common with visual and other brand triggers, need continual reinforcement
SOUND → SOUND NOT RECOGNISED → repeat, confirm, establish → SOUND RECOGNISED [STAGE 1] → SOUND NOT LINKED TO BRAND → repeat, confirm, establish → SOUND LINKED TO BRAND [STAGE 2] → SONIC BRAND TRIGGER
Theory and practice; an effective SBT
A view from a composer
"Whether it is an original piece, an existing recording or a new arrangement of an existing work, music has to reflect and develop the brand image as well as enabling the commercial to entertain as well as inform.
At a local level the commercial breaks so often contain a string of pleasantly forgettable tracks culled from well-worn ‘library music’ CDs. At best such music helps the listener to ignore the monotonous tirade of the voiceover; at worst the commercial is doubly irritating.
Music is no exception to the rule that quality takes time & effort, and costs money, but you can be sure the listener will notice the difference"
Musical Director / Composer
Two Train Music
"There's no doubt that the jingle gets a bad press in creative departments. It's deemed 'cooler' at present to lift an existing song. However, nobody could deny that a good jingle will serve a brand better in the long term. I can recite, lyric for lyric, most of the product benefits for products from 2 decades ago- I know with utter conviction that Birds Eye peas are fresh as the moment when the pod went pop. I blindly accept that Murray Mints, Murray Mints are too good to hurry mints, and I have a horrible suspicion that if I were to hear the Limara jingle today, I would instantly be sporting a raging adolescent erection. And how many marketing directors can say that their ads have had that effect on punters? (Yes, I know the Limara girl was just a bit of animation, but I really, really loved her, OK?)"
A view from an academic
"People, quite understandably, spend a lot of their lives trying to avoid advertising. One of the extraordinary things about sound in general, and musical sound in particular, is that it has the power to penetrate the mind almost unnoticed - so it makes sense that advertisers would be extremely interested in this.
Advertising messages work through repetition, and music bears much more repetition than words. It is also subtler and less solicitous of the listener. Studies show that after continual repetition, sounds can gradually become inconspicuous and, eventually, unnoticed.
Equally, music can be tremendously powerful and affective, so it can be useful to advertisers as an attention-getter and as a way of expressing what they have to offer the consumer.
The referential significance of music is in a constant process of change, so products which have a music-based Sonic Brand Trigger would need to review it from time to time."
Emeritus Professor of Music
Royal Holloway, University of London
A view from a specialist radio producer
"Sonic Brand Triggers are great, and very powerful – but from a radio producer’s point of view they do have their downside. Since surprise is a big radio weapon, it is possible that they can spoil the intrigue of a script – if the listeners know it’s an ad for Product X too early they may stop listening.
The other danger is the leaden use of the branding device in an incongruous way in the middle of a commercial. It means brand linkage but a poor brand experience ... the way the brand speaks to the radio listener is important"
Producer / Writer / Director