Audio branding—can it really be achieved?

Distinctive product design, colours and logos have been used to help brand recognition for a long time. Now some companies are trying to appeal to our hearing as a stimulator and brand identifier. How are they succeeding?

Audiovisual media, particularly films and TV series, are an enormously important vehicle for manufacturers to gain widespread brand recognition.

Visual branding predominates

Visible brand cues abound. We all know how car makers are competing to place their products in films, how film heroes glance at their watches with the manufacturer’s logo clearly visible, how drinks are served from bottles with the labels in plain sight.

Yet, some studies suggest that sound is between 75 and 90% more important than pictures or words. Because sound links directly to both the rational and emotional sides of our brain, many high-visibility brands have tried to capitalise on this finding. So far, their success has been varying.

Audio branding must combine technology and marketing

Product-related sound effects, jingles and audio signatures have been around for a while, but being an attempt to artificially connect a certain sound with the brand, they do not represent a genuine brand sound. That is why I’m leaving them outside of the scope of this article.

What I’m talking about is sound that comes from the product itself or its use.

While the sound of opening a beer can, for example, is a definite audio cue, it is only generic. The sound doesn’t evoke a mental image of a certain beer, it’s just beer. Or it could be a soft drink, for that matter, the listener cannot hear the difference. Similarly, the snap of the safety lid of a soup jar, while distinctly related to a certain product group, cannot be associated with any one brand of soup.

Mobile phone manufacturers have tried to establish an audio presence in our minds by installing clearly recognisable, unique ringtones as default in their handsets. Yet these can be changed by the users, and many do so, after which the uniqueness is gone.

Harley-Davidson has calibrated its engine tone to become a trademark. They litigated for seven years to copyright the sound—although with no success in the end. Ford is busy developing hallmark sounds: a distinctive thud of a car door when being closed, unique warning chimes and even digitising the sound of a ’68 Mustang and using it to tune the new Mustang’s exhaust system to produce exactly the same sound as in the film Bullitt.

Steps in the right direction

These are clearly steps in the right direction, although I must say I’m a little sceptical about the man-in-the-street being able to distinguish the sound of a Mustang passing by from any other vehicle with a similar type of engine. Associating the thud of a closing car door with a certain make of car is even more difficult.

There are, however, some brands that are closer to the goal than others. Take Subaru cars, for example. The boxer engine used on them has a distinct sound that doesn’t require a trained ear to be distinguished from inline or V engines. Then again, all boxer engines probably sound pretty much the same.

Having done a quick mental “brand sound search” in my brain, the product that comes closest to really owning a particular sound is the flip-top Zippo lighter. Intentionally or purely by chance, its mechanism makes an unmistakable sound. When you are watching an American film the next time, pay attention. What is particularly ingenious about this is that the product does not even have to be in sight.

Can you think of any other products that can identify themselves by making a unique sound? Please share. Click on the comment link below and fire away.


Sources: The Sound of a Brand, Business Week; Building Brand Value Through the Strategic Use of Sound, AIGA

Follow-up: Audio branding—the sequel

#audio branding#branding#famous sound bites


  1. steve keller - 2012-03-30 @ 17:08

    A thought provoking article! Thanks for taking the time to post it.

    Can audio branding be achieved? To some extent, that would depend on your definition of audio branding. There are certain measurable parameters that can be employed to test the success of any particular brand/audio association: congruency, distinctiveness, flexibility, recognizability and ownability.

    Apple has done well establishing connections between sound, brand and behavior. The icon start-up sound and the “swoosh” of a sent e-mail – immediate product associations. These are “add on” product sounds, rather than something engineered into the physical hardware of the brand, but no less distinct and certainly part of a strategic effort at audio branding. The Intel “five tone” audio logo is another example of an audio brand that, while not a part of the product itself, is such a powerful association that it’s one of the most recognizable audio brands in the world.

    Product sound is one aspect of audio branding. But it certainly isn’t the only consideration in the development of an audio branding strategy or in it’s execution and testing. As you point out, consumers may not be able to simple recognize the distinctiveness of one car door sound vs. another. But the consistent, reinforced pairing of a certain sound with a brand can go a long way in establishing the association (as with your example of the Zippo lighter.)

    Audio branding is a powerful tool to help brands claim a certain “sonic space.” What’s unfortunate is that most brands don’t approach it with any real understanding of the strategic or design elements needed. They simply think that by coming up with with a few notes and slapping those against an animated logo, they’ve achieved the goal.

    Sound (product and otherwise) affects our experience of a brand. Which is why congruency in audio/brand paring is so important.The danger is that incongruent audio branding can also be achieved. Consider the case of SunChips – an chip company that built its brand around bio-friendly positioning. But in an attempt to create a biodegradable chip bag, the company didn’t consider the actual sound of the product. The result was a bag that was significantly louder when handled and opened than any of the competition – and the consumer outcry was so loud they pulled the bags from the shelves. Ironic that a company that was concentrating so hard on the verbal and visual congruency of the brand identity that they ignored the one element that contributed to their being branded as a “noise polluter”- sound.

    Thanks for the great food for thought.

    • Kimmo Linkama - 2012-04-01 @ 19:53


      Thank you for your in-depth comment! It certainly looks like planned brand sound is a largely untapped resource.

      I liked Amir Kassaei’s quote in your blog:

      It’s not about the right sound or the right piece of music. It’s about the strategic question “What should my brand sound like?”

      Second that. I usually don’t like to make predictions, but it seems brand recognition through all of the human senses is becoming increasingly important. We’ve had visual and feel for a long time, sound is getting more attention, and soon (I presume) smell will complete the circle. “Total brand experience”, indeed!

  2. Jordan Stevens - 2012-07-16 @ 16:57

    Thanks for the post. It shares an important concept in modern brand design.

    I agree with Steve that audio branding should be viewed as a complete picture and not its composite parts.

    Furthermore, sound needs to be integrated into the rest of the brand to ensure congruency across all five senses. Starbucks is a good example of this. The smell of fresh roasted coffee beans, sights of colorful drinks and tasty treats, the feel of the cups and of course the sounds of music. Putting all these elements together makes for a powerful experience.

    Thanks for the article. Looking forward to more great posts.

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