And in this special A Sound Effect post, Henry Daw shares his key takeaways, tips and insights from 11+ years of working with audio branding:
Today every brand has a sound – whether it’s through product sound (both the physical and digital), music in marketing, ambience, or tone of voice. Audio branding has taken big strides in recent years, as those who follow the excellent Audio Branding Academy would tell you, but audio branding still has some way to go to get the recognition that it deserves. Sound can be incredibly powerful, and if harnessed well, it can add a whole new dimension to a brand. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the insights I have gained, through my work as a sound designer for Nokia and Microsoft, and now through my own company Oblique Sound.
Audio Branding as a Philosophy
We hear a lot of talk about audio branding today, but as a term it is quite vague. It’s meaning depends on the context or whom you’re talking too. It is clear that audio branding has moved on from merely owning a ‘catchy jingle’. Audio branding is about having careful consideration for every single touchpoint that makes a sound, within your product or brand.
Audio branding is about having careful consideration for every single touchpoint that makes a sound, within your product or brand
It’s about striving for that consistent high quality – enhancing the design experience, improving usability, and reflecting brand character. Audio branding shouldn’t be forced in any way. It should be part of a coherent design – your goal should be to make the sonic experience optimal and of the highest quality.
Keeping Brand Sounds Consistent
Consistency is vital for any audio brand, whether we’re talking in the context of an individual product experience or the wider brand. During my time at Nokia, consistency was especially important for the core brand sounds, which included the default set of notification sounds on a device. These sounds would be created and developed as a close-knit family of sounds, using similar tonality and design, very much aligned to the industrial and UX design drivers.
The core sounds were exceptional in the way they collectively communicated a strong brand statement. All other device sounds, whether a system UI sound or a ringtone, were not so heavily brand-focused, allowing us to provide more expression and choice to the user. It’s important to understand that consistency doesn’t mean that everything needs to sound the same. Rather the aim is to sing from the same hymn sheet – your overall brand sound needs to follow similar guidelines and design principles. Each sound should be designed to world-class standards, all optimized and mastered to a similar level. If just one sound is sub-optimal, it could ruin the perception of the complete audio experience.
The challenge will often be about ensuring a similar level of consistency with sound in areas largely outside your control, such as marketing and retail. To avoid any major disconnect between product sound and marketing, you can turn to sound mnemonics (or audio logos) and music, both of which act as strong unifiers.
Audio logos pose a challenge to a sound designer – they are likely to be driven by marketing, and their success will undoubtedly be influenced by how much coverage they get in an already crowded space. Too much coverage however, and they risk becoming annoying and having a negative effect. The audio logos of today and tomorrow need to embrace this challenge. They need to act as more than brand reminders.
The audio logos of today and tomorrow need to embrace this challenge. They need to act as more than brand reminders.
What does an audio logo say about the brand? How does it link to the user experience? How is it unique? In some cases it might work to use a specific product sound in marketing, coupled with some appropriate music – a notable example being Microsoft’s use of the “click” sound in their original Surface ad (seen below).
The original Surface ad, highlighting the signature ‘click’ sound
Updating Your Brand Sound
Your audio brand will often demand an update as times change and the brand evolves. However, if you’re chopping and changing too often, you can lose continuity and your brand communication can become muddled. Whilst at Nokia core audio brand refreshes were carried out, on average, every couple of years, but other factors may determine the frequency. Refreshes are often aligned to key product or software release timelines. In general, you should try to have a longer-term strategy to your audio brand development – you shouldn’t always change based on current trends of the time.
Your approach to updating your brand sound is obviously key. Modern design has become increasingly about refinement – using only the beautiful essentials. The Nokia audio brand development was very much a reflection of this, starting from the audio brand refresh I led in 2010 up to the subsequent refresh a few years later. The key brand sounds went from the laid-back folky guitar style, to the more neutral, confident and refined mallet-based sounds.
It was very much about refinement, and making things meaningfully better – not introducing new for the sake of new
This was followed by another refresh a few years later (Nokia Core Sounds 2013), although the changes were minimal in comparison to the previous update.It was very much about refinement, and making things meaningfully better – not introducing new for the sake of new.
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Functionality versus Branding
Branding is a vital means of connecting with the people who use your products, a way of forging strong and positive relationships. Sound, if used smartly, can play a big role, creating a strong recognition to your brand. However, if you overly focus on branding when designing a sound, there’s a danger of compromising functionality and usability. A sound needs to first and foremost do the job for which it is intended, whether it’s a system UI sound or a notification alert. That said, using a sound that has a certain amount of character can help bridge emotional connections, something that is challenging with a generic and purely functional sound.
During my time at Nokia we were lucky in that we had the Nokia Tune in our armoury, said to be one of the most brand recognizable pieces of music in the world.
Using a sound that has a certain amount of character can help bridge emotional connections, something that is challenging with a generic and purely functional sound.
The tune was continually refreshed, on average every couple of years, yet it always remained distinctly recognizable and importantly the functionality was never compromised. It needed to work effectively as a ringtone – especially important if you consider the fact the majority of people would never change the ringtone from the default setting.
Secondary to the functionality and usability, product sound should ideally reflect the design principles and brand character of what you are designing for. This is where you have potential to create more meaningful connections to the brand. Think of the sounds as a collective voice coming out from the device – does it communicate the product design, the materials, the colours, and the feel? The Nokia N9 was a nice example of how far you can take this – a beautiful device that became a strong design-statement.
What Makes a Successful Audio Brand? Key insights from 11+ years of audio branding work:
Finding Your Target Audience
Ideally you would have a clear idea of whom you are designing for. But sometimes this is not so straightforward.
During my time at Nokia, we needed to cater for an exceptionally wide array of user tastes and preferences, anyone from a teenager in Finland to an elderly person in China. For the ringtone content it was always about offering choice, whilst staying true to the brand. It was also important to not be overly subjective when putting together the ringtone content, which is why user studies were vital aspects of our work at Nokia. For any new sounds, whether it’s a China-specific ringtone, email notification sound, or camera shutter sound, we always found user testing to be insightful. On the other hand, user testing is only indicative – it’s also important to have confidence in your expertise and instinct. If the ringtone lists were based on user studies alone, you would invariably end up with a very one-dimensional selection.
A successful audio brand should also have flexibility, which Nokia certainly had during my time there. That flexibility allowed us to engage with communities and brand followers from all over the world, as well as innovate in the areas of audio crowdsourcing and localization.
If the ringtone lists were based on user studies alone, you would invariably end up with a very one-dimensional selection
We had the popular Nokia Tune Remake contest in 2011, and one of my personal highlights from my time at Nokia and Microsoft, the ambitious Sounds of the World student collaboration project in 2014. These projects were about getting everyone involved with the audio brand development, whilst designing for a truly global brand.
During my 11+ years working at Nokia, I felt immensely privileged to be able to help shape one of the most recognizable audio brands in the world. In many ways the Nokia audio brand was unique, not least because of the association with the Nokia Tune, but the same principles and learning’s discussed here can be applied to any brand, whether it’s a start-up or an established company.
I have already applied similar principles since setting up my new company, and I’m hugely excited at the prospect of working with the products and brands of today and tomorrow. I’ve no doubt that sound will play an increasingly important role in our everyday lives, as our product experiences become smarter, less attention-demanding, and more holistically-designed – rapidly growing areas such as the ‘Internet of Things’ and virtual and mixed reality are testament to this. In my opinion it’s never been a better time to be a sound designer and audio branding professional – we all need to take the opportunities that come our way, and communicate clearly the benefits of considered and holistic sound. Only then will sound have its rightful recognition, and we can hopefully all look forward to a better-sounding world.
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