Ron DiCesare
Issue: June 1, 2009


Sonic branding is on the rise. More and more companies are recognizing the value and power of audio. Even though the concept of audio identifiers is nothing new, there are countless new ways to harness the power of sonic branding.
Stephen Arnold, president of Stephen Arnold Music ( in Dallas approaches sonic branding like songwriting. With credits that include CNN Headline News, the Weather Channel, Fox Business Channel and ESPN, he understands how audio can evoke specific feelings for the viewer. "The shorter it is, the harder it is to strike that emotional chord with the listener. Traditionally, emotions are created by the musical structure of the song, like the verse sets up the chorus, the chorus goes to the bridge, which builds the anticipation for the chorus. The chorus, or the hook, in a sense is the sonic brand of a song. But when you are doing a short advertising statement, or audio signature, you often do not have the luxury of time to create something that has the emotion of a full song. So, the challenge comes from not having the benefit of the most important factor of a successful audio brand, and that is repetitiveness."
Arnold associates the meaning of certain sounds throughout history with sonic branding. "I am writing a book on sonic branding, where the thing I address first is the fact that there is nothing new about it. It's been around for tens of thousands of years in the sense that thunder signaled to the caveman to take cover, or a rooster crow signals morning time. What that is doing is evoking an emotional response when someone hears something. There are many, many cases where the sonic branding is not musical, it's an audio trigger."
Many companies are now understanding and capitalizing on people's natural response to audio. "When you use a response to audio to promote a product or service, there needs to be the understanding of what environment the sound will be used in. For example, if it is too sound design driven, it will not be able to be used in certain advertising applications. And certainly there is the consideration as to if you can hum it."
Short musical mnemonics can be memorable, but can have their limitations. "We did a sonic brand for Nvidia, who makes video cards for the Sony PlayStation and Apple," describes Arnold. "They wanted a signature sound to play every time their graphic card popped up. In a case where a short musical sound is used, sometimes even just one single note, I think that's great. The only drawback is there is no opportunity to develop it further. That is going to be difficult to make that translate into a different musical environment."
Musical signatures for broadcast networks must have the ability to be used in different ways. "We do a lot of music for CNN's Headline News, which caters to  people who don't have a lot of time to get their news," he explains. "Often times, they deliberately use sound and different musical cues to reinforce what is going on, like when the weather forecast comes on. Networks, especially news networks like CNN that have sonic brands, will reshape these audio cues into every different emotion. Their musical signature can be used for everything from tragedies to exciting sporting events. They are using audio signatures to cross over into different things in order to brand things within a show. Everyone is getting all their daily content and advertising from so many sources. The one thing that can tie in all those sources is audio branding"
The studios at Stephen Arnold Music use Steinberg's Nuendo and Digidesign's Pro Tools|HD. Their main studio has the Yamaha DM2000 console and uses the RADAR hard disk recorder made by the iZ Technology. "The RADAR is great because it's a hard disk recorder that acts like an analog tape machine with a remote instead of a mouse," says Arnold. "We also have a studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and we have cloned that studio to match our main room here in Dallas. We also use Genelec speakers for 5.1 monitoring along with Dynaudio speakers. For writing, I use MOTU's Digital Performer and I am thinking of migrating to Apple's Logic."
Arnold stresses the power of audio. "An important difference between audio and graphics or visuals is that sonic brands can take people places visuals can't. And the two most critical things that create a sonic brand are repetition and consistency. That, along with the proper implementation, creates successful brands. For example, if a company creates a sonic brand and they don't play it very often, then people cannot expect it to be very successful."


Paul Anthony, founder/CEO of Rumblefish ( in Portland, OR, has created sonic brands of all types. Kaiser Permanente, Unilever, Red Bull and Adidas are just a few of the companies listed on their credit list.
Rumblefish's innovative thinking blows the format wide open, from audio logos to sonic art and environmental music. "Some people think of sonic branding only as composition for brands," says Anthony. "We here at Rumblefish believe that it is the strategic use of sound in anyway. That means mnemonics and sonic logos, but also includes everything from what's playing on hold on the phone to what's playing in your environment to the music you associate with your brand. It even includes the sound of your environment acoustically, even when there isn't any music playing at all."
Anthony's background is music, and he applies it in an innovative way. "I founded this company as a film composer, so I use the same principles of writing film music and telling a story as I do for writing for brands," he says. "Sound tells half or more of the story. We think of it in that context when we look at the goals of the brand. The questions we always ask for any project is what does your brand sound like? And more importantly, what kind of behavior are you looking for?
"A company's goal might be to have people stay on hold longer because revenue is being lost every time someone hangs up. Well, if you can increase the time spent on hold with music, then maybe that company will need less people to answer the phones, which translates into saving money and increased revenue. A retail store might have a similar goal at their stores, for example. We have found that you can increase the length of stay for a customer at a retail store by 28 percent by playing less familiar music rather than more familiar music. Another example is, and there is plenty of research to back this up, that if you play music at a wine shop, you can influence consumer preference. So, by playing Italian music, you can increase the sales of Italian wine, and by playing French music, you can increase sales of French wine."
When it comes to achieving a company's goal, Anthony does not see any real conceptual difference between short audio segments verses longer ones. "The longer format is essentially the same as the shorter format," he says. "What is the outcome you want from the use of sound? That's why our process is the same for everything, regardless of length. It creates a lot of context for clients and achieves the outcome the client is looking for. It can be a short segment, or a permanent sonic art installation."
Rumblefish raised the bar of sonic branding by creating a unique audio environment for National Australia Bank. "For NAB, we did interactive sound art installations for their new training facility in Australia," explains Anthony. "The workflow for this process is pretty similar to anything we might do, whether it's a sonic logo for TV or online or whatever. We have put in several installations there and these projects are significantly more integrated and complex. So we approached this knowing that banking doesn't really need to venture outside of the box.
"But, when it comes to training their staff, they wanted to open their minds and help them learn and receive messages to expand their skill set by using music," he continues. "There are many studies that show how important music is in terms of learning. So, it's kind of like warming up their brain to learn."
There are three major segments that make up the bank's sonic art installation. The first one is located in the training facility's main entrance for their beautiful staircase. "The piece we created for the stairs used about 30 different speakers equipped with infrared sensors throughout the staircase that trigger the music," he explains.
There are three main compositions for the stairs that are based on the energy the bank wanted throughout the day. "When you walk up the stairs, you hear this composition that completely engulfs you," he continues. "We also have cameras that measure how tall you are and how many people are on the stairs with you so it's completely interactive. It's never the same twice. And you are literally playing the stairs musically because we created sound samples from the actual materials that they built the stairs out of.
"They also have this amazing walkway that was our second sonic art installation called the River of Words. We put in these directional speakers that make it possible to hear the sound of the river only when you are walking down this path. It can't be heard anywhere else. On the path, there are words that are projected on the floor. If you kick the words on the floor, there are sounds that are triggered as you are walking and you can hear them go down the river. So you get this really beautiful effect."
The third major segment is called Dial a Mood. "We preprogrammed music according to mood throughout the training rooms," he describes. "The idea is that it focuses your brain waves so you are better able to learn."
Whether it's this type of work or for a sonic brand, Rumblefish always starts by asking questions that make up what they call a sonic profile. "The goal is to know who your audience is and how do you want them to feel," says Anthony. "Basically, we want to know the desired outcome the client is looking for based on sound."
Rumblefish runs Digidesign's Pro Tools|HD using Pro Control, with plans to upgrade to ICON control surfaces. Depending on the composer, Digital Performer or Steinberg's Cubase is used. Speakers are from Genelec and Tannoy. 
Anthony is embracing the audio community. "We are hosting the world's first sonic branding symposium on July 2, 3 and 4th called 440. We will have sonic branders from all over the world. It will include sound artists, technology people, psychoacoustics people, music houses, you name it."


Bill Nygren, managing director of Boom Sonic Branding (www.boomsonicbranding. com) in Toronto, approaches sonic branding as a marketer, even though he is a musician. His credits include Rogers Communications, Clear Channel and Dunn and Bradstreet.  "To me, a sonic brand is the aural expression of a corporate logo," he says. "It can be a one-second thing, or a three-second thing, or it could even be a jingle or a tag. So we have to respect what the logo looks like, but more importantly, how it is going to be experienced by the market. It can be a piece of sound design, or musical expression, or a brand statement like a tagline. Whatever we do has to be in keeping with the brand because at the end of the day, a brand is [a company's] reputation."
Today, there are more people expressing their brands sonically than ever before, but not as many as there should be, says Nygren. "There are many companies that spend so much time on their corporate image but don't take the next logical step of what it sounds like; that's where we come in. A project starts when a company decides to extend their brand into the aural world, and most of the time, their corporate logo already exists. In a perfect world, a sonic brand should be used absolutely everywhere there is audio-enabled media. That can be television, radio and, increasingly, digital technologies."
Nygren understands how almost anything can become a sonic brand if done correctly. "For us, it's about creating what we call ear-a-tainment. And here is where I come at it as a marketer; it's all about the frequency, or how often a person hears it. I absolutely believe that it almost doesn't matter what sound we are using — if the market experiences it frequently enough, it will become associated with a brand. It's purely a function of how many times a person hears it, most importantly."
Not all successful sonic brands start out as ideas from an advertising agency. "A project can start in a number of different ways, but what is most interesting is that many of our projects didn't find their genesis within a marketing department," says Nygren. "Several of them came to us straight from the IT departments, oddly enough. It's logical to think that we would be dealing mainly with the marketing departments, but many times it's the IT people because they have a very specific purpose for why they want it to begin with. It could be something for the company Website, or an electronic device, etc."
He point to Avaya, a business brand phone service they have been working with. "This project came straight out of their product department. They were looking to have an Avaya branded sound become the onboard sound for all of their phone systems. It evolved over about a year and a half — there were more and more manifestations of this Avaya sound being used with more and more Avaya products. That made it interesting because it wasn't like working with a corporate brand for something that was going to be used for all their ads. Avaya had extremely specific technical requirements that we needed to follow. That included things such as specific file sizes or, in certain cases, the sound could not be polyphonic or multi-voiced."
During the first stage of the project, the studio came up with the sound, which was a four- or five-note trill. "And the second stage was implementing the sound within their very tight technical parameters," he says. "They were so specific that it came down to them sending us their various phones so we could upload our sounds in and out of them to ensure that what we were hearing in our studio was translating over their phone systems. And it still is an on-going project because they keep finding new uses and redefining this Avaya brand sound. This is not a marketing function as much as it is a product function."
Boom Sonic Branding has found unconventional ways of creating sounds and logos for their clients. "We had project for a financial institution called ING, which is a bank that exists only online," he describes. "And once again, this did not start out as a marketing device. They wanted to have an ING branded sound to use in all their internal communications and even as their employees' cell phone ring."
ING started by giving Boom Sonic their brand material, including their logo. "Since ING exists only online, it's really a cutting edge, high-tech bank, and we knew we wanted to express that somehow," he says. "So we took their logo and ran it through the MetaSynth by U&I Software, which is a program that transfers images to sound waves. We scanned the logo and it translated into the sound of three or four notes revolving around each other. In addition, I thought about the relationship of the letters I, N and G in the alphabet and applied that to musical semitones. Now here is the odd part, it turned out that scanning the logo into sound and the arbitrary note relationship I came up with resulted in almost the exact same three notes.
"After some refinement, we thought we needed something more even though it was created by our interpretive interaction with the brand," Nygren continues." We added the sound of spinning coins and their tagline, 'Save Your Money.' One of the important things this project taught us was about throwing out our traditional ideas of composing. With a sonic logo, sometimes you really need to get out of that composition space and get very innovative in order to come up with something that is going to be very unique."
Nygren and his co-founder, Frank Lauraitis, along with production director Greg Thibideau, work on Pro Tools| HD and use a variety of synthesizers, including the Novation A-Station and Native Instrument's Kontakt. A large assortment of effects processors are available, including the Apogee International CRX-12 multi-channel EQ and the Lexicon MPX 500 multi-effects processor. The studio monitors are Event TR-8 tuned reference monitors and Yorkville YSM-1s.
Nygren sees audio as a part of our daily life. "People experience sonic branding every day without realizing it. This is an old dog that has learned a new trick, so to speak. The NBC chimes have been around for a long, long time. Even the Intel sound. AOL's "You've Got Mail" is absolutely a sonic brand, even though it is not music or sound design. In the case of Quasar, a brand of electronics from the 1970s, the sonic brand outlasted the product! I still remember those three notes."


New York City's Audiobrain ( is smart about what they do. Owner/ executive producer Audrey Arbeeny names Microsoft's XBox 360, Virgin Mobile USA, IBM, McDonald's and four Olympic broadcasts for NBC as recent projects.
Audiobrain goes beyond short mnemonics and has a much broader approach. "Sound branding is the strategic development and deployment of a consistent voice and point of view of a brand," she says. "We are there putting in the foundation of the house, sonically speaking. Everything else gets built on top of that."
On most projects, Audiobrain is involved in the sonic development very early on. "Most of our clients bring us in at the very beginning when the concept for the logo, or visual, or the product is being designed," says Arbeeny. "We normally get brought in from the client or a branding firm or a design firm, so we are dealing with the corporate identity people and the brand managers directly. We work heavily on the strategy side, so if there is something strategically the sound needs to accomplish beyond creatively, we are looking to include that within our sound."
Arbeeny realizes that sonic branding creates a clearer objective for their clients, resulting in efficient use of time and resources. "It's important for a client or an advertising agency to understand how sound branding can be used and to have a tangible guide to follow. That actually makes everything much clearer and much simpler than when you 'one-off' everything. A client can then share and revisit assets so that they are not going back every time on each project starting from scratch.
"It's really just a smart way to develop sound," she continues. "We create a framework that identifies the key iconic elements, like for the XBox 360 — it's the breath at the end. And then every sound that comes after it gets put through this filter, or criteria, so that these attributes are spoken over and over again. It's a blueprint, and to me, this is so logical because you are not only creating a consistent experience of a brand with the consistency of sound, but you are also getting a better return on your investment. That's because your sound assets are appropriate and are on brand so that many people can use them throughout your company for many different things. Ultimately, it's less expensive over time, contrary to what people normally believe."
Today's ever-changing world creates ever-changing media and outlets for a brand. "It's important to realize how transparent things are and how quickly things go from one medium to another," shares Arbeeny. "Things go from being a commercial to being on YouTube, then it's on on-demand, it's on mobile. Therefore, it becomes extremely prohibitive to use other people's music, for example. You might be okay in one environment, but not in another. That's why for Major League Soccer, we created their own brand theme. So now, it can be used for ring tones, iTunes, when they walk on the field, a tag for TV broadcast; they can do what ever they want in a variety of media. There are no barriers and there is no liability for them. The more we get into many different forms of [media], the more important it will be to create your own audio assets. And it's important economically to create sustainable and sharable assets that are your own. And that is why this is becoming an even larger industry."
Arbeeny stresses the importance of audio assets. "We create and help our clients find what space they can own sonically, what is unique to them, and what differentiates them from their competitors. Sound logos are of tremendous value, but it goes beyond that. Many people don't think that the music they hear on hold is sonic branding. They don't think that the voice of customer service is sonic branding. For example, I called one company's call center and the voice they had on hold sounded like a 70-year-old chain smoker. It was so off brand from what that company really was that it was very surprising. So, yes, this applies to sound branding. It doesn't have to be musical, it could be a voice, it could be sound design, or whatever. The point is, does it communicate the brand benefits, is it on brand, is it memorable, is it unique enough, is it extendable? That's why our specialty is creating a framework and long-term strategic approach to creating valuable and shareable sound assets."
Depending on what project Audiobrain is working on, they will use Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Apple's Logic or Digital Performer. "Our composers pass files back and forth. Because we do branded sounds, one person may do the brand theme, then the next person may be evolving the ring tone. One project may start using Ableton's Live, but then finish in Pro Tools."
Another essential item is Native's Kontakt, particularly for orchestra, world and percussion sounds. For certain projects, Audiobrain will bring in live players as needed ranging from just one person up to an 80-piece orchestra.
Sums up Arbeeny, "One key point is that people are going to use sound anyway, whether it's for a commercial, or in a product, or a voice on hold at a call center. Therefore, why wouldn't you want it to be the right sound? Why wouldn't you want to take that extra step to find out what you sound like? This is a very important communication tool."