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Soundings: how was it for you…sonic logos and the recession

How was it for you? – Michael Spencer on the assumptions that can plague music in advertising. How sonic logos can beat the effects of the recession – and Andrew Peggie tries to work out how a sonic logo works. Sound Strategies News – Sound Strategies working with The Deliverers in Prague … Andrew Peggie wroking with sirens in Amsterdam.

How was it for you?

One of the starting points in Sound Strategies’ Breaking the Sound Barrier training is a short look at the different ways people think and talk about music. It could be assumed that music is music is music (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker). But it would be wrong to do so. There are at least four different conceptual frameworks in which to construct descriptions of music and how it works. And there are two ways of considering the relation between music and human emotion, depending on whether you think the music depicts emotions or induces them in the listener. (To discover more, you will need to sign up for a Breaking the Sound Barrier session.)

Fertile territory for the philosophy of aesthetics or the science of cognitive perception perhaps, but in fact also critical to the emerging dialogue between music and marketing, branding and advertising. Not knowing which conceptual framework is being applied is as potentially confusing (not to say counter-productive) as mis-reading the cultural signals inherent in contract negotiations between parties from different countries. Terry O’Gara relates a salutary tale of mistaken assumptions on his blog Critical Noise.

Nowadays, an awareness of the various functional and perceptual elements of music can be critical to good client-agency-composer dialogue. The composer might strive to create a soundtrack which perfectly amplifies the commercial narrative, whereas the client might be looking for something which fits the target demographic.

The sonic logo might have strong symbolic content, where the sounds themselves evoke elemental feelings or moods; but a low iconic content could mean that the synergy with other brand advertising elements is weak. Think of Mercedes-Benz’s ethereal voice, whose connection with the preceding television commercial content (both audio and video) could only be described as enigmatic.

On the other hand, a logo with strong iconic content (such as the Yahoo yodel) can be based on cultural assumptions which risk misinterpretation outside the culture of origin.

And when a sonic logo is aired in context – for example, at the end of a television commercial and framed by other, unrelated, commercials – the listener’s ability to comprehend the musical message might have been compromised by the surrounding ‘noise’ of other competing soundtracks.

Finally, it is almost impossible to factor in the individual contextualising which takes place with every sound we hear. Almost instantaneously our brain creates memory references to other musical experiences or indeed life experiences related to the music in question, which create neural pathways unique to the individual concerned: the south sea island beach music intended by the composer might become, in the mind of the listener, a shopping trip to a suburban supermarket.

We can think of these factors either as horrendously complex and impossible to unravel, or we can trust the infinite suggestibility of music and hope that some aspects will impact positively on the brand-consumer relationship in some cases.

Or we can manage the process more effectively by agreeing in advance how the music should function within the context of the overall branding strategy.

Some simple questions to address:

  1. Should the music evoke or depict brand qualities or ‘personality’ or should it instead make cultural connections with a target demographic?

  2. Will it be associated with a graphic logo or tied more closely to the narrative of a video?

  3. Will it have a long life (stripped onto many different media outlets) or will it exist only for the duration of a specific campaign?

Michael Spencer


How sonic logos can beat the effects of the recession

Articles and blogs in praise of the sonic logo or audio ident proliferate across the web so there is no need to rehearse here the usual arguments in favour of sonic branding. Much less studied to date have been the cognitive and perceptual aspects of short audio sound ‘gestures’. Do they have any inherent semantic or semiotic value? How easy is it to forge a Pavlovian link between a sound and a brand image or graphic logo? And how long does it take? How to create emotional capital in such a relationship?

But first, an assertion: the recognisability of the sonic logo is generally accepted to depend on repeated exposure over time. The longer the usage, the stronger becomes the recognition factor. If this is indeed so, then it follows that consumers will associate well-known audio and graphic logos with stability and dependability – elements unaffected by the uncertainties of the market in general. Thus, logos promote confidence and security around a brand.

It is the case that Pavlovian responses (you hear a bell, you start to salivate, once a bell-eating link has been established) operate at autonomic level in humans and animals. That is, the neural pathways take a short-cut from the stimulus to the physiological response, avoiding routes which involve reflection, decision-making, value judgements or other cognitive assessments. In which case, well-established links between brand, image and audio logo which operate at a Pavlovian level should in theory work no matter what the sound is. Any old noise would do, so long as the association is reinforced sufficiently frequently.

However, this is to ignore an essential element of the Pavlov process: the association is cemented by a strong physiological trigger or reaction, either pleasure (as in eating) or pain (an electric shock for example). So for the Pavlovian response to work between a brand and its logos there needs to be some pre-existing pleasure or satisfaction factor between the consumer and the brand. A sonic logo will clearly work best for consumers who already use, eat, drive, wear or otherwise experience the product or service and have had positive experiences doing so. The important pleasure/pain effect will thus transfer from the brand experience to become associated with the audio and graphic logos, investing in them a similar Pavlovian response, no matter what their inherent qualities might be.

For people with no prior connection to the brand, it is perhaps likely that brand-logo recognition will take much longer to establish. Moreover, one could posit that in the case of consumer neutrality (no feelings about the brand itself), any inherent expressive qualities of the logos will have some effect on the perception of the brand.

The question is, how large might that effect be? Sufficient to generate more sales, or just enough to create a positive attitude to the product’s presence? While it is true that people often make purchase decisions (even for expensive items) on the basis of the packaging appearance, no-one has yet (to our knowledge) established whether sonic logos promote impulse buying. And as yet, sonic logos tend to exist in relative isolation. Either they promote a product or service which is a virtual monopoly (e.g. Intel, Skype) or there are few competing sonic logos in the same category. So it could be argued that even if it improves brand recognition, this is a factor of the relative scarcity of competing sonic logos rather than some quality inherent in the sound itself.

Sonic logos clearly have to be created using different criteria to more extended sound tracks, for television commercials for example. Their compactness and the need to find a unique, soundworld, ostensibly reflecting the brand qualities, could well evolve into a completely new musical lexicon, freed from all associations with melody, harmony and other traditional elements. But when these recognisable musical features, complete with the strong associative ties, disappear in favour of culture-free and reference-free sound-bites, then the resulting musical gesture has to work hard at a symbolic level in order to evoke possible emotional reactions.

As yet, we have no reliable mechanisms for assessing the effectiveness of sonic logos, and despite the huge amounts of expertise which are often deployed to create such insubstantial musical phrases, it is doubtful whether anyone has evolved a credible methodology for approaching the task. Composers themselves admit to working almost completely by instinct.

So we look forward to contributing to an emerging new science: the semiotics of audiograms.

Andrew Peggie


Sound Strategies News

  1. Sound Strategies will be supporting the communications company Deliverers in early May, providing a music based leadership workshop for all 250 participants in the Schering-Plough Global Conference in Prague.

  2. Andrew Peggie has been directing music for an extraordinary event in Amsterdam to mark the finale of the city’s tenure as World Book Capital. His 30 minute piece for trombones, percussionists, fireworks and 4 music sirens has previously been seen at the Oerol Festival (Holland) and Rotterdam.

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