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The Sonic Paradigm: Music and Sound Tell Stories, Enhance Emotional Connections for B2B Brands

Ray Baird

In the world of sonic branding, Joel Beckerman is a maestro nonpareil. From sonic logos and full identity packages for major brands to theme music for films and television programs, from signature sounds for digital devices and call centers to aural atmospherics for conferences and retail locations, his highly acclaimed work has an enormous footprint, touching the lives of billions.

As Founder and Lead Composer of Man Made Music, a bi-coastal company he founded in 1998, he has collaborated with such notable Hollywood composers as John Williams (Star Wars), James Horner (Titanic) and Don Davis (The Matrix), as well as performing artists such as John Legend, Ice-T, will.i.am, Moby and Morgan Freeman. In 2010, Fast Company magazine named Man Made Music the #3 Most Innovative Music Company in the world, after Apple and Spotify. High-profile brands including Disney, Mercedes, Hertz, AT&T, Virgin and Moet & Chandon have tapped Beckerman’s expertise, as have an equally impressive array of media outlets (NBC, CBS, ABC, Showtime, ESPN, HBO, FOX, Discovery, FX, History Channel, A&E and HGTV).

Much of Beckerman’s work revolves around brand strategy. Indeed, his team sees their job as not so much pleasing the ears of audiences as creating emotional connections and illuminating the “story” of a brand through sound and music.

BrandingBusiness Founding Partner Ray Baird spoke with Beckerman about sonic branding in the B2B space and about the larger picture presented in his upcoming book (written with Tyler Gray), “The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy.”

Baird: Let’s start off with an overview on what sonic branding is and the trends taking place in the space.

Beckerman: The way we define sonic branding is that it's the strategic use of music and sound to build brands. If you think about old-style jingles, most of that music and sound generally was kind of the same—the tag line and little hooky things to remember that are geared around positioning. The new trend around sonic branding has to do with strategically using music and sound to build this high level of branding that is going to carry the company forward for years and decades to come.

Baird: People have heard and experienced a lot of that on the consumer side. Now, from the business side, there's amazing new thinking going on.

Beckerman: The sort of “Why now?” is that brands now exist on such a multiplicity of platforms. They have products and digital apps and Web interfaces and the existent sponsorship and spaces.

There's opportunity for employee engagement. In fact, a lot of the work we do with B2B, the first place we're looking at is employees and how can we transform the way employees connect to companies.

In the B2B space, we're working a lot with Abbott, the healthcare brand. It’s a global project, primarily B2B. We're also working with Hertz, focused on their business customer. What we do for these companies is, we create sonic strategies. Not just creating sounds but coming up with a sonic strategy that we build off of the brand strategy. When you think about how brands connect with customers in B2B, everyone knows about visual identity, and there’s verbal identity. Sonic really completes the picture…determining what should the brand sound like everywhere for the business customer. One of the things we did [for Hertz] was to develop ownable sonic identity elements.

Baird: It’s an interesting concept—building the brand from the inside out. In many of these cases, you're doing the work for the executive, the marketing team. Then are you introducing that internally?

Beckerman: That’s really the right place to start, not only because the development process really benefits from it. We want to be about authenticity. It's not about trying to put some kind of coat of paint on the outside of the barn.

Usually, we're dealing with companies with brands that are in transformation. Whether they have new paradigms for business or they need to get back in touch, perhaps, with some of the core values and work those with their employees and then, from that process of rebuilding their brand from the inside out, go to customers, investors—all the other brand stakeholders. We find that working with employees first is often the most powerful and authentic way to develop a sonic strategy and then sonic-identity elements.

Hertz is a great example because everyone knows the brand. A lot of other rental car companies have challenges because of the need to be global competitors and because they're competing against all of these very digitally driven start-ups that haven't had to transform their business models.

In a lot of ways, strategic paradigms end up driving the work because we're trying to make an emotional connection. Sound equals emotion, and emotion, for many decades, has been the underpinning for consumer brands. One of the trends we're seeing in B2B is that brands seem to understand now that that emotional connection—to their employees, customers, investors—is just as important as those connections in consumer brands.

Baird: Amen to that. Tell us a little bit about some the experiences as you develop different sonic strategies.

Beckerman: It’s probably helpful to note the work that we do is grounded in brand strategy. Then we go to this process of translating that brand strategy into sonic strategy that's actionable.

For the Hertz B2B customer, it is very much about speed, getting things done, moving forward. We had to have that feeling in the anthem. In the first 15 seconds or so, you get the sense that there's a journey here. Just like a national anthem, there's always a journey. The anthem is the long-form expression of the brand, sonically. It needs to tell the entirety of the brand story. The sonic logo—some people call it audio logo—that's the short-form expression of the brand. It really needs to remind you of that anthem.

NeverLost is [Hertz’s] premier digital device in vehicles. When you start the car and start up the system, that's what you're going to hear. It's a little reminder of that anthem. It doesn't stop there, though. There are the other sets of sounds that often are included in customer interaction…what we call brand-navigation sounds.

From a generic standpoint, those are user-interface sounds. If you use an ATM and push a button and hear a sound, it lets you know that you hit that button. But those are a bit rudimentary. The current thinking on brand-navigation sounds is that they need to be functional but also emotional.

Usability is that two-way conversation business customers have with their NeverLost system. So they might hear this left turn signal when a left turn is about to come up. It's very simple, very short. You begin to know that when you hear that, it's to make a left turn. You don't need to look down at the screen anymore.

Then at the end of your journey, it's a sped-up version of the logo and it sounds a bit celebratory. That's really the key. These brand-navigation sounds need to be completely intuitive. You have a little bit of an emotional experience when you hear these sounds. Yet they're completely branded. Say you had a Garmin GPS or other sort of generic GPS devices or your phone. None of them sounds anything like [NeverLost].

Baird: I just love this approach. It's so authentic. We always talk with our B2B clients about having nice “aha” or surprise moments in different brand touch points. How do you look at different touch points and develop different sounds and clues as you move through that process?

Beckerman: We’ve been working on how we create these sounds and put them into market over the course of about 10 years. We don't want sounds that sound like a device. We don't want tactile sounds. We want to fuse sounds and experience, because then we can learn from those sounds. If you hear those sounds again in the next touch point or the next place, they're familiar. They're comfortable. You know what it means. It's very communicative.

Our paradigm for brand-navigation sounds is what we call “emotional-need states.” For instance, Got It. A customer gets a sense from these sounds, in association with a brand, that their input was received in some way.

Another would be sound of success: “I was successful in completing something.” The paradigm is to create as few sounds as possible to make interactions seamless and easy for people. We always say to ourselves, “It's not about the sound, it's about the experience we're creating.”

We think of silence as our white space. When you think about, for instance, print design, if you don't have ample white space, then the content really ceases to mean anything. Extraneous sound is the enemy, just like extraneous information or extraneous design really does nothing but cloud the waters.

We almost think of sound as the cayenne pepper of the experience: just as the tiniest bit is wonderful, too much and you spoil the sauce.

Baird: Your book is coming out when?

Beckerman: October 21st. There's a story about AT&T and a story about Univision, the Hispanic television brand and a number of other brands that we worked on. But it's actually a big idea book: The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy. It's about pulling back the curtain, the fact that moments of sound are triggering experiences for us at any given time. As an individual, business or a cause, just to be aware of the sounds in association with that experience gives you the opportunity to curate it.

Because sound operates at the subconscious level, for the most part, we're not really necessarily always aware of how that guides us to make decisions and choices. There are about 40 or so stories. Some of them are personal stories, some are business stories, some are about causes and individuals and all sorts of things. They're humorous and, hopefully, revealing about this whole area of sound. It certainly covers a lot of the B2B work we do. The way I talk about it is sonic humanism: how sound is just part of our human experience, and trying to learn from that and being able to apply that to our lives.

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