The Sound of Branding
Interview with Oliver Stutz
What are the main pillars of a brand identity? Certainly, a large part of a company's identity is based on how it appears visually, its corporate design. This includes its logo, the work clothes worn by its employees, its online presence, or the corporate architecture of its company buildings, etc. However, the identity of a company, just like the identity of a person, also results from other crucial factors, such as, for example, the way it speaks and how it acts towards the outside world.
For a long time, visual identity was at the forefront of marketing. It still has great significance for the awareness and image of a brand or a company. Increasingly, however, the auditory identity of a brand is also gaining in importance. Especially since the big podcast and audio boom of the last years. But even earlier, around the beginning of the 20th century, the commercial idea of acoustic branding found its way into marketing. Consider jingles of well-known brands that have been around for decades and will likely forever be associated with those brands in our memories (e.g., McDonald's, T-Mobile, Intel, or, to take a more recent example, Netflix). Even if we do not identify with these brands, do not even know exactly what they produce or sell, we know which brand this sound or that sound belongs to. We know the brand through its sound, and that alone is an important goal in marketing. Sounds evoke emotions in us like no other stimuli. Music can evoke feelings and memories in us, it can make us cry or feel happy; certain sounds, like scratching your fingernails across a chalkboard, can even trigger physical reactions like goosebumps or disgust in us. If we turn down the sound of a film, suddenly, the film really feels bland, because there are very little emotional cues that come with it. So, sound plays a key role when it comes to emotions that you want to relate to your brand. Audible stimuli are particularly successful in conveying emotions as well as information. They have an influence on the attitude towards a brand, the willingness to buy and the purchasing behavior.
Therefore, let us dive a little deeper into an important component of a brand’s identity: its sound or rather its audio identity. In order to gain a little more profound knowledge about this exciting topic we talked to a real expert about what sound branding is, why it is so important and what to bear in mind when creating an audio identity for your brand: Oliver Stutz from Two AM music.
- 1 How did you become a sound designer? What was your way into the industry?
I’ve always been intrigued by interactions with sound and music. My father was a pretty active musician while I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time in studio environments and seeing all the gear and equipment always felt super magical. Things started to gain momentum when I was about 12 and began playing with a program called Cool Edit Pro. It was super basic, but man was it fun, it was the first time I could experiment with a range of sound manipulation techniques. Seeing what I could do with recordings of family members' voices kept me entertained for hours!
In high school I began producing electronic music, hopping from program to program learning different bits and pieces where I could. The production side of things always intrigued me, and I really wanted to understand it better, so after high school I studied Sound Engineering.
Besides turning my sister's old bedroom into a studio and almost being disowned for removing all her magazine cutouts on the walls, college was when I really grew attached to creating sound and music for films and brands.
After graduating and working with several studios I ended up kickstarting the audio division at an established Production House in Cape Town. At the time, they didn’t offer any audio related services, so I saw the opportunity to create something together, and the rest was history.
A few years later I was approached by the founder of Two AM and decided to make the move to KL, Malaysia.
- 2 How does the typical working process of a sound designer look like? What are the key steps in the process of developing/determining a sonic logo for a brand or company?
The actual creative process is fairly unique and different for everyone, but I think the most important thing is understanding what you’re aiming to achieve.
When conceptualizing and creating a sonic logo, you need to prioritize the brand’s goals and dive deep into understanding what the brand stands for, as well as who it aims to connect with. Without knowing this, you’re essentially leaping in the dark. Advertising & branding talk aside, music and sound is naturally a very instinctual language that is built into all of us, meaning we can use it to communicate on a very personal and organic level.
To give a board perspective, here’s a very surface level breakdown of how we often approach the process:
- 1. Analyze — We start by focusing on learning as much as we can about the brand’s positioning, personality, target market, and core mission.
- 2. Strategize — After doing our homework, we conceptualize and develop our sonic strategy.
- 3. Execute — Once aligned on the game plan, we explore and experiment with several concepts and interpretations. The idea is to approach a common objective from various angles, giving us a range of assets and ideas to evaluate and test.
- 4. Grow — Honestly, your sonic logo is just the start. It’s important to know where you plan to take it thereafter. We use this phase to outline, advise, and discuss the potential expansion of the brand’s sonic ecosystem.
- 3 What aspects of a brand or a company do you consider or play a role in defining the sonic identity of a brand/company?
Understanding the core pillars behind a brand and its target audience is invaluable, and in many ways the foundation behind creating an effective branding strategy of any kind. However, it's also important to remember that when dealing with audio as a medium, there are an array of more specific questions we need to ask ourselves. Like, how and where will your audience be hearing your assets? What playback devices will they be using? How frequently will they hear it? Will it be paired with other musical elements? Will it always be tied to visuals? The list goes on, but to be real, that's the beauty behind it! The unique variables presented with audio are simultaneously what makes it special.
The goal here is to analyze and advise where and how certain sonic elements can live within your brand’s ecosystem in order to be most effective, practical, and beneficial.
Another thing to keep in mind is that while the more major brand pillars are extremely influential in the creation process, the smaller details shouldn’t be overlooked. There can often be an unexpected uniqueness hiding among the less focused-on elements which can lead to an entire concept.
- 4 How long does it usually take to create a sonic logo for a brand or company?
Oooo tricky one! It really depends on a long list of factors. Sometimes the idea, concept, and execution slaps you in the face (don’t tell anyone) and just feels right. Other times, you need to dig a little deeper to find the right angle.
- 5 What are key components of a well-made and successful sonic logo? What makes a sonic logo stick with the audience?
The key components behind successful sonic logos are largely dependent on the brand and its audience. We’ve seen brand’s like Netflix create one of the most iconic sonic logos without leveraging a more conventional melodic hook, and it didn’t slow them down one bit. Broadly speaking, we could say that it’s important for a sonic logo to be memorable, ownable, malleable, and expressive, however the exact meaning behind these points is in many ways relative.
It is important to stress that the way in which your sonic logo is presented and incorporated throughout your brand’s touchpoints is equally as important. You could create the “perfect” sonic logo, but if it's not used in the correct way, it most likely won’t reach its potential.
- 6 Are there any objective criteria for determining which sound best suits a brand?
Definitely, I think the key lies in the fact that these criteria are unique to the brand. There are several components that vary depending on the brand itself, how it functions, and how it engages with its audience. For example, if your brand mainly relies on audio-only mediums for advertising and communication, one could say it is important to mention the brand name within the sonic logo, as viewers cannot visually connect the audio to the brand itself.
- 7 What can be done to ensure that the decision about the right sound for a brand does not degenerate into a question of taste?
It's no joke! When you create something, it can be super tricky to objectively stand back and evaluate whether the correct choices were made. A great way to collect unbiased feedback and information to get a clearer perspective is to set up a simple testing program. When I say simple, I really mean it, the scale and size of this is completely up to the team, and if needed can be kept fairly small.
This can be done by presenting the sonic logo to an audience and following up with a series of simple yet strategic questions. It’s best to do this at a point in the development when there are multiple versions so that one can not only evaluate, but also compare results between them.
- 8 How important are sonic logos/is sonic branding for a brand or a company anyways?
As humans we naturally resonate with what we see, but to a very large degree, also what we hear. We combine our senses to understand and interpret things, so capitalizing on this and approaching your brand’s sonic identity with a holistic and strategic mindset is invaluable. It allows you to take control of a whole new sensorial dimension and connect with people on an extremely personal level.
We’re all familiar with the strong emotional impact music can have on us. Imagine being able to strategically shape that connection and tie it to a brand. That's the power of sonic branding!
- 9 What are the differences (in terms of the approach, the process…) between creating a sonic logo compared to a visual logo? In what way does the visual aesthetic of a brand play a role when developing a sonic strategy for it?
In many ways, the creative approach for a sonic logo can be fairly similar to that of a visual logo. In fact, it can often be useful to leverage visual logos as a talking point when explaining the purpose and ideation behind sonic logos. Both should express the brand's identity and allow it to stand out in a unique and memorable way. The core difference is in how and where we communicate these points, which naturally differs due to their medium. For example, a brand aiming to display playfulness may use curvy typography in its visual logo, and can aim to express a similar tone by using the correct melodic motif or instrumentation within its sonic logo. This way, both visual and sonic assets have a common narrative, and an overall stronger, more solidified voice.
- 10 Apart from the sonic logo of a brand — what other aspects does sonic branding involve? What else is included in the soundscape of a brand?
In short, sonic branding can be defined as the holistic and strategic approach behind the use of sound and music across all of a brand’s touchpoints, the bigger picture essentially. Think of it as a custom sonic ecosystem crafted and controlled in a way that most effectively supports your brand.
While a core sonic logo is at the forefront of your brand’s sonic narrative, it is only one of the assets that make up the audio ecosystem. Depending on the brand and its positioning, other elements can include curated assets for commercials, in-store, apps, online, podcasts, on-ground events, competitions & challenges, holding music, radio, and much more.
The key and power really lies in the connection between all of these audio elements and how they work in harmony to strengthen the core narrative. Again, we can jump back to visual branding as a way to explain this. Let’s take a brand everyone is familiar with like McDonald’s. Before I even mention the colors of their logo, you can most likely guess the colors of their menus, right? Red, Yellow, and White would probably be your guess, and rightly so. It makes sense to be consistent when presenting your brand across all touch points. Consistency and synchronization is a foundational must for conveying a clear-cut message of any kind.
Similarly, all audio elements should be connected and crafted with purpose. A core sonic logo works wonders by functioning as the center anchor point to which all other audio assets are derived from and connected to. We often see this done through melody, whereby a core melodic motif is weaved into all of a brand’s audio elements, unmistakably linking them together.
As music and sound is naturally very malleable, brands can leverage their core motif to convey various narratives across a variety of touchpoints, while still retaining a clear overarching connection.
- 11 When is it time to create a sonic logo?
The sooner the better! Imagine launching a brand without a visual logo, it would be crazy right? Having a sonic logo and sonic branding strategy from the start is ideal. Like an investment, these usually strengthen over time…if done right. The more time we have to become familiar with a brand’s sonic identity, the more powerful it can become.
- 12 What are the current trends in sonic branding and what will the future of sonic branding look like?
It isn't uncommon for brands in the same business sector to gravitate towards similar sounds and moods. However, this is actually what we often aim to push against and avoid. Creating something similar to everyone else runs the risk of it being swallowed up in the ever-expanding audio realm. More importantly, trends by definition are time dependent and often short lived, the opposite of what we aim for when creating a sonic identity.
We’ve seen sonic branding grow in an exponential way over the years. As technology develops, it’s likely sonic branding will only become more powerful, hopefully creating new ways to enjoy the strong connection we all as humans have with music and audio.
About Oliver Stutz – Executive Creative Director and Partner
From Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur, Oliver leverages the best of both worlds with audio engineering and music composition. His career kicked off with a variety of major composition projects through which he established and led the audio & music division for a Cape Town-based production company. The hunger to grow and expand the way people connect with audio-based media led him across the globe to KL, where he joined the Two AM team.
With the help of good coffee and a drive to hunt for fresh angles, he leads the creative family and vision of the company.