Sonic branding 101 with Tokyo-based composer Marty Hicks
We’re super excited to share this interview with you. It’s a chat with a good friend of Y+L, and professional (Tokyo-based, Australian-born) musician Marty Hicks.
The origin of this chat formed over a Friday evening drink at the office. We were chatting about music and branding (and this PornHub Tik Tok prank, don’t worry, it’s SFW) which got us on the topic of ‘sonic branding.’
Through Marty’s work, he’s composed soundtracks for films, animation and knows the world of sonic branding more intimately than most, so we sat him down to talk more about this fascinating, influential, and sadly often overlooked aspect of the branding process.
Hi I’m Marty. I’m primarily a composer and piano player, who’s been living in Japan on and off for eight years now. Alongside making music as a solo artist, my compositional activities encompass things like music for film and animation, sound art, and other kinds of sonic creation.
Here in Japan, I lecture in the Music Design faculty at Senzoku Gakuen College of Music, where I teach classes on electronic music composition and the role of music and sound in various forms of media.
How would you explain the concept of ‘sonic branding’ to someone who has never heard of it?
I often think of sonic branding as the sound of a brand. When we think of branding, what first comes to mind are things like brand aesthetics, image and design, presentation, and keywords associated with the brand’s concept or message. But sonic elements like music, sound design, or even speech can also clearly represent a brand.
Can you remember when you first recognized sonic branding?
Retrospectively, it’s interesting to realize that the concept of sonic branding has more or less been omnipresent in my life since I was very young.
I remember wanting to learn how to play the ‘Bakers Delight music’ when I was learning piano as a kid, I just never knew it was an actual marketing strategy.
I grew more conscious of it when I started to hear about musicians and composers working with brands to design sonic logos and sounds for products, like when I discovered that Brian Eno had composed the Windows ’95 startup sound, and more recently, when film composer Hans Zimmer collaborated with BMW for designing the engine and interface sounds for one of their conceptual cars.
What goes into creating a ‘sonic brand’ for someone?
It’s quite an involved process — while sonic logos themselves are usually much shorter and can have slimmer sonic content than jingles or commercial music, they have to communicate brand identity succinctly and memorably in a matter of seconds, so their design process involves lots of trial and error, and countless reiterations and edits.
Sonic branding can involve aspects of both music composition and sound design — in other words, it’s not just about writing a melody or piece of music but manufacturing the sounds that it is performed with from scratch. If you play the same melody on two different instruments, the emotions it evokes can completely change depending on the sound.
Thinking about conveying brand identity through sound can be a challenge: should it be exciting or relaxing? Are there any existing sounds that are related to the brand? Should the sound be acoustic or electronic? It’s the job of a sound designer to use these kinds of questions to translate ideas associated with the brand into sound content.
Why do you think sound as a medium for communication (for brands) is at times overlooked? Do you think it can be as powerful or iconic as visual branding?
I think there are probably many reasons why sound is often overlooked in brand design, but if you were to break it down, you could start by saying that light travels faster than sound, so we see things before we hear them.
Visual information is so much more immediate and easier to process, whereas sonic information takes time to define. There’s also the question of noise pollution: if we choose to, we can filter out visual information by looking away or closing our eyes; our ears don’t work that way, however, so attaching sounds to advertisements, for example, can be too sonically invasive and promote a negative reaction.
Interestingly, this is also why sonic branding can be powerful — because we can’t easily shut off our hearing, our minds have learned to filter the sounds we hear based on how important it thinks they are to us.
We might not be conscious of a sound, for example, but we still hear it, so it still gets processed. This could then lead to a subconscious association between sonic and visual information: let’s say you hear that distinctive sound of a Facebook Messenger notification from your phone — when that happens, you’re already thinking of Facebook’s Messenger screen, for example. I’m also constantly reminded of how strong this sonic association can be when I play someone a recording of traditional Irish folk music, only to have them say “it feels like I’m walking around in Muji.”
What brands/ companies do you think showcase the best examples of sonic branding? Are there any brands out there that you think their sonic branding is stronger than their visual branding/ copywriting? Why do you think that is?
I think there’s quite a large number of well-known brands that have strong sonic branding. In particular, Netflix, Nintendo, and Apple come to mind — they’re noninvasive, unique, and intrinsically tied to their products and services.
Netflix’s “da-dum” sonic logo has a good frequency spectrum that sounds good on both home theater systems and smartphone speakers, where its services are often used. The Nintendo Switch finger-clicking sound is a concise, clear sound that can be heard at the start or end of all their commercials and connect the controllers to the console. Both the Mac startup sound and iPhone lock sound, for example, are good examples of easy-to-understand, pleasant sounds that are tied to both functionality and branding.
In terms of companies that have stronger sonic branding than visual branding, not many come to mind, but personally, when I was younger, I remember internalizing Intel’s sonic logo — a very well-made, memorable sound — without actually knowing what products the brand produces.
There are those instances where you might see a commercial that sticks in your head, but you can’t remember what company it was or what they were selling — I think sonic branding could have the same pitfall if there isn’t a strong connection between visual and sonic design.
Is there a nation/ industry that does sonic branding best? Do you think there’s any reason for that?
I’ve lived most of my life in Australia and Japan, so they’re the countries I know the best, but even comparing these two countries, you can see a difference in how brands are sonically represented.
For one thing, Japan loves jingles, and it’s a regular thing to hear repetitive, catchy theme tunes blasted through speakers in chain supermarkets, department stores, and recycle shops. I’m sure the sheer relentlessness of these jingles pushes the annoyance threshold for many people. Still, it’s hard to deny the overwhelming influence they have on your association between sound and brand.
In terms of industry, I’d probably have to say areas such as the film or technology industry have the strongest examples of sonic branding. It’s kind of a given in the film industry. For many years films have begun with a short clip of the affiliated production companies and funding entities, which all have their own sonic logo or theme tunes (think MGM, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, etc.).
In the tech industry, sounds play functional roles that guide the user as they interact with a product — it’s helpful to have a cheery sound that plays when a transaction has been made without problem using a digital payment method, such as a banking app, for example.
Functional sounds such as these, when designed well, make the experience of using a product much more comfortable and give the company a sonic personality.
Are there examples of daily sonic branding we probably experience but might not be aware of?
I think one of the sweet spots in sonic branding is when you can make somebody subconsciously associate sound and brand. Phone notifications come to mind — the type of sound that plays when you receive a notification can differ depending on the app or the brand of the phone itself, so every time we hear that sound, we’re actually hearing an advertisement for Apple, or Samsung, or whatever.
I have a feeling that these kinds of “subconscious” sound marks will increase as time goes on, though — you could argue that technology is getting quieter (think of the roar produced by car engines from past decades compared to almost totally silent hybrid or electric cars), so the need for specifically designed sounds to guide and alert product users will likely result in a more subconscious association between sonic information and branding.
What emotions do sonic branding sounds typically play on? Nostalgia/ anticipation? Are there even unifying emotions?
I guess it depends on what the brand is trying to sell, their target demographic, and what sort of impression they want consumers to have about their company.
Sound is one of the quickest and most effective ways to manipulate someone emotionally, so it can — and has — been used by brands for both good and evil. A company could use their sonic branding to inspire wonder at how cutting-edge the technology used in a certain product is, or hearken back to simpler days.
Ultimately, though, sound can be very subjective — a pleasant sound for one person could be a harsh sound for someone else — so it’s often in their best interest to aim for something that is noninvasive and easy to listen to.
How do you think sonic branding can help brands/ companies cut through?
Sonic branding can be utilized as simply another way to strengthen brand identity. Arguably there are more ways to reach people visually than aurally, but smartphones and other devices that can produce sound are so much a part of our daily lives nowadays that it’s never been easier for potential customers to “hear” your brand.
If you have a strong sonic identity that fits your brand, it’ll be just that much easier to leave a lasting impression.
There has also been lots of discussion surrounding sonic branding in recent years, with some awards and recognitions being handed out to companies with particularly memorable sound design. So it’s conceivable that sound design will become a big — necessary, even — part of constructing brand identity in the coming years.
Are there particular sounds/ instruments/ harmonies that work well/ are popular in the sonic branding landscape?
I don’t think so, no. With sonic branding, you’re usually aiming for a sound that is unique to your brand, so using something that sounds like another company could be a bad move. Having said that, something that most sonic logos have in common is simplicity — simple harmonic and rhythmic content, for example.
What’s your dream sonic branding project?
I’ve actually been thinking about the relationship between sound and scent recently. I had two interesting experiences that got me thinking about how I associate them both with each other: one was when I went to an outdoor music festival a few years ago, where an incense company “designed” the aroma of one of the performance locations, setting up incense podiums at different places around the area where the audience was. The other was when I realized that I had got into the habit of lighting a particular flavor of incense when I sat down to watch an episode of The Leftovers, which led to me thinking of Iris DeMent’s song “Let The Mystery Be” whenever I smelt that incense.
I think the relationship between our aural and olfactory senses has yet to be fully explored, so personally, I’d love to try doing some sound design for a brand that specializes in aromatic products.