By Colleen Fahey published November 8, 2013

How Audio Enhances Your Brand Content: Find Your Signature Sound

uses for audio dna-chartWhen I joined Publicis in 2000, I traveled the world to meet with Publicis agencies and their clients to dive into the core of their brand communication and to discover new ways of thinking about marketing. Much of our work centered on finding a common brand essence that would be understood globally, but could be interpreted relevantly at a regional level. I found that our agencies’ approach to expressing their clients’ brands was predominately visual, and that our use of music tended to be more campaign-oriented, not brand-oriented. Music was often chosen as a final consideration, not planned from the start. It wasn’t seen as a key element of a brand content strategy but, rather, as a somewhat insignificant aspect of a campaign.

It wasn’t until late 2011, when a friend invited me to attend the Audio Branding Congress, that my eyes — and ears — were opened to the power and potential of audio branding. I felt as if I had discovered a deeper way of connecting with an audience through a sense that was as old as the human race.

Content marketing’s continual evolution

As content marketing strategists, we are responsible for the creation and multichannel publication of an organization’s content (text, video, audio, animation, etc.). One of the difficulties of managing a brand content strategy is making sure that, despite the various messages and methods used, all efforts consistently reflect well on the brand — providing an opportunity to create coherence and meaning in a distinctive way.

At its core, music is a language — when used well, it can convey meaning with great clarity. To get started with audio branding, it’s essential to first clarify what our brand stands for — i.e., its essence and values — and then evaluate the sounds that might help translate those values into the language of music. From there, we define our current positioning in the market in order to build a creative content strategy around our audio communication.

To do this, ask questions that will help you understand the qualities you want to convey through your audio branding, such as:

  • What are the core values of my brand? “Innovation and entrepreneurial spirit” will suggest different music than “familiarity, ease, and security” would.
  • What does my brand’s voice sound like? Is it playful and casual? Authoritative and reassuring? Those aspects, too, will influence your brand’s audio identity.
  • What brands in your own world appear to design their sounds rather than leave them to product engineers or licensing managers? What do their sounds convey?

These aren’t the sorts of questions that you come across in your day-to-day duties. Nor are they likely to be ones that you’ve posed to your marketing partners. But today more than ever, we’re operating in a noisy, crowded, and competitive marketplace. Finding the heart of what your brand represents and then expressing it in your content — through text, visuals, sound, or any other medium — should be your top content marketing strategy priority.

How audio branding works

Audio branding’s approach uses unique and proprietary sound and music to convey a brand’s essence and values. It provides a consistent system of sound that connects people with a brand at a profound level.

To determine the audio branding elements that your signature sound should include, start by conducting an audio audit based on your brand’s marketing strategy. This evaluation’s purpose is to identify the components and priorities in your brand content plan, so you can optimize their impact with the audio branding elements you choose.

  1. Define your brand’s current positioning in the market, and characterize how it differs from that of your competitors. The audio audit will consider, among other things, whether any current sounds and music you are using:
  • Are consistent with your brand values
  • Are unique and original
  • Leave a memorable imprint
  1. Examine what audio elements competitors are using, as well as the audio themes, formats, or features that your target audiences are more likely to engage with. For example, if you are marketing a coffee brand, here are some common sector marketing themes that audio branding can enhance:
  • Sensuality/Seduction: Orchestrated in more or less a cinematic, romantic, or symphonic fashion, this has been a recurring and repeated theme in coffee marketing for many years. Musical sounds: A closely linked, romantic mixture of string instruments, a noticeable reverberation of the sound; the presence of a trumpet or other brass instruments; an intimate rhythmic base (muffled cymbals); a marked bass line.
  • The Family; The Everyday: Several brands have adopted this positioning, characterized by friendly, accessible, and jovial musical tones. Musical sounds: Simple guitar or ukulele music; a childlike chorus of voices; jazz rhythms. 
  • Indulgent Pleasures: A commonly used, recurring theme in many coffee advertisements, this mood can be brought to life through sexy sounding music — often funk or lyrical. Musical sounds: Similar to the sounds found in those of the sensuality / seduction sound, but orchestrated in a more dramatic and cinematic manner.
  1. Take a look at brands outside your sector that embody the feelings you want to convey with your audio brand — especially ones that could serve as inspiration for your own brand’s best audio practices.
  2. Create a touch-point analysis: What sound, if any, is currently heard at each of your brand’s touch points? What does each sound convey? Does it carry a positive sounding message? Does it align with your overall brand positioning and values? Are there other sounds that might communicate these qualities more powerfully or more directly?
  3. From there, an audio brand strategist can create initial “audio mood boards” — musical demonstrations of different ways to express your brand’s core values. These boards are developed by the audio brand team into sample audio DNAs that can then be selected, evaluated and refined to your satisfaction.
  4. After the DNA is finalized, you can begin to adapt its use to suit each content marketing touch point it will be used in.

The combined power of audio branding and content

Today people are conditioned to take in sight and sound together. Studies have found that attention spans have declined, and that people today often operate in a state of “continuous partial attention.” Given this landscape, you’ll need every tool in your kit to reach through and transmit meaning.

Audio branding lends coherence and continuity to your messaging, so what your consumers hear when engaging with your content is always clearly and distinctively recognizable as a part of your brand. The technique provides brand strategists and CCOs with the tools to make every content marketing touch point a relationship-builder and to get consumers to form positive associations with your brand’s values.

It’s particularly critical to bring your Audio DNA to your entertainment content or instructional content, to subtly remind your audience who’s behind the messaging without overwhelming the experience itself. It’s also important to note that your audio strategy should not be left until the last minute — for maximum impact and continuity, it should be planned at the outset.

Other critical factors to always keep in mind include:

  • It’s not about entertainment — it’s about brand enhancement: Articulate what your brand stands for before addressing what the music must do. Investigate what audio approaches your competitors are using, so you can stand out.

The audio branding agency’s job is to create a core audio DNA that remains consistent, while allowing flexibility for adaptations to multiple touch points over many years — including what consumers will hear when they are on hold with your salespeople, visiting your trade show booth, viewing your videos, opening your branded mobile app, etc.

  • Impact without meaning can be distracting and counterproductive: Decide if you need the audio branding to underscore or to add to the messages conveyed by your other brand content efforts.

You don’t want to develop and/or choose a piece of music and audio content just because you like it — it must clarify what your brand stands for. Are you carefree, festive, and mobile? Trustworthy, supportive and comfortable? Innovative, surprising, and friendly? As we mentioned above, when music is used as language, it not only creates a bond, it helps tell your story.

  • Don’t neglect a measurement mechanism: After you’ve incorporated your signature audio elements in your brand content, you will want to test their impact. For example, consider surveying loyal customers (as well as prospects and other consumers) directly or via social media to see if — and where — the incorporation of audio in your brand content has helped to improve their perception of your brand. 

Have you used audio branding in a content campaign? Or, are there some brands that come to mind that use audio in an easily recognizable way? Let us know how audio might play into your brand content efforts in the comments below.

Looking for more advice on helping your brand stand out in a competitive marketplace? Read Joe Pulizzi’s book, “Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, & Win More Customers by Marketing Less.”

Author: Colleen Fahey

A senior marketing executive with over three decades of experience, Colleen Fahey is the U.S. Managing Director of Sixième Son, a unique audio branding agency founded in Paris, France in 1995. Working from a deep understanding of every brand's ability to strengthen its position within the marketplace by creating and owning its own audio identity, Colleen helps clients tap into the value that audio branding provides through the use of music and sound. Colleen makes her home in Chicago.

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  • David Dunworth

    Spectacular article. I am most impressed as I never gave music a thought when it came to marketing. I use it for the background introduction of my books, but that is the sum of my participation in the concept. I will look to expand my branding to include music ASAP. Thanks.

    • Colleen

      That’s what happened to me, David, when I discovered audio branding. It was a light bulb moment. I decided on the spot that that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my career. If you’re planning to add brand music, you have to do some soul-searching. Perhaps ask yourself what three values define you most. Then look for or create music that reflects them. It sounds easy but it’s very nuanced.

    • ReferralCandy

      That is so true! We always thinking visually when it comes to marketing, when we don’t realise how powerful marketing through the other senses (i.e. scents, sounds) can be! Think of Garrett Popcorn and Famous Amos brings up almost overpowering scents of popcorn and cookies from our memories.

      I’ve also always chose my favourite cafes based not only on their quality of coffee, but also from their playlists, ha! A quick search on Google revealed quite a few studies on olfactory and auditory cues on consumer behavior. Fascinating!

      This is definitely good for us to ponder about.

  • Jonathan Crowe

    Great article, Colleen. Do you have any suggestions for stock music/audio sources?

    • Colleen

      Thanks, Jonathan, I’m sorry I’m not a good go-to person for stock music as Sixième Son tends to create bespoke music individually for each client. Perhaps someone at the Audio Branding Academy could help you.

      • Jonathan Crowe

        Thanks very much for the response, Colleen. I realize stock isn’t the greatest option and that unique, personalized audio is absolutely the way to go with bigger branded projects, but it’s good to have options for smaller projects, too!

  • David Dunworth

    Thanks for the tip Colleen,

    It won’t be an easy assignment as I am not even sure how many personalities I actually possess.

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  • Colleen

    My sympathies. The ‘self’ can be a wobbly concept can’t it? Maybe best to practice on a brand that’s not so close at hand!

  • Luci Carl

    To be honest I can’t believe this focus is only just now emerging in the US. It’s so obviously influential! As a member of the millennial generation, I’ve noticed the impact of music at Miami’s campus job fairs. Where do students gravitate to for jobs/internships? Well, the lines at Red Frog Events and Abercrombie and Fitch, using both video and audio components to craft a culture at their booths, always extend beyond a corner…or two.

    Thanks for sharing your expertise and insight Colleen! I’m now consciously cued into an art that has always driven my actions at the subconscious level.

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  • Marcel Reinard

    Interesting, sound is unbelievably important and can get forgotten about quite easily for people involved in video when it’s as important as the visuals. It’s one of our basic senses!

    Echoing others (pun only half intended), I’d like to have seen a bit more detail in where to find good music. So far I’ve been using off the rack stuff and spending anything up to four days finding music I half like (vimeo/jamendo aren’t bad @jcrowe_openview:disqus).

    There’s the problem of working out when to use Creative Commons and when to pay, should you use the same music across the board for consistency or have something made for each.

    Finding the right music is incredibly time consuming and very subjective…

  • iV

    Thanks, Colleen, for a great overview of audio branding from a process perspective.

    Audio in the context of brand identity and engagement is so often approached as an execution based initiative, rather than understanding that before the creation/procurement of any audio assets, there should be a clear strategy in place.

    We also can’t over emphasize the importance of research and testing. It’s the marriage of science and art that separates the discipline of audio branding from simple composition or music supervision. There are a number of qualitative metrics that can actually help inform creative decisions Free associative profiling, core/affect testing, likability/engagement, recall, emotional/rational congruency, and crossmodal effect, to name a few. A solid empirical design and the right battery of tests are really part of what moves the discussions from subjective to objective.

    I’d also add to some of the comments regarding “fit” vs. “unfit” music, licensing tracks or using library music can certainly be part of an audio branding strategy – as long as you have a strategy in place for why you’re making the choices. But remember: if you don’t own the copyright, you’re ultimately building a brand identity on audio assets that you’re only “renting.” It may cost a bit more on the front end to commission the audio assets and purchase the copyright – but it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll have audio assets that can be collateralized and exclusive to the brand.

  • Doug Voegtle

    Explaining musical concepts in words can be like nailing jello to a wall but you nailed it, Colleen. This is one of the more eye-opening branding articles I’ve seen in a long time. Full of solid suggestions—the audio audit is just one. Even though your work is all driven by brand essence it must be fascinating to negotiate the diverse musical tastes and egos of brand managers and agency creative directors and producers. I imagine your audio mood boards are helpful in that process.

    I use visual/copy mood boards as a tool for repositioning an established brand or developing a new one. They help guide both client & agency to stay on brand no matter what the campaign or sub-brand. Do you develop these audio mood boards w/ and w/o accompanying still or moving imagery? Does it depend on the strategy, client, pitch, etc? One of these days I hope to collaborate with you & Sixieme Son.

    • iV

      Hi, Doug –

      I’m sure Colleen will respond for Sixième, and I imagine it’s quite similar to our approach here at iV. Presenting audio moods with and without visuals are always a part of audio workshops and testing. Congruency (the alignment of audio with brand values, visual identifiers, and verbal identifiers) is one of the most important audio branding parameters. As part of our battery of tests, we measure the extent to which the audio has an impact on the visual perception of the brand (using audio as the independent variable in the design.) Since sensory perceptions don’t happen in a vacuum, cross modal factors should always be considered.