One of the first and most important uses of audio as identity first occurred when radio became a major medium. There is an old joke that “the test of a true intellectual is someone who can hear the opening of Rossini’s William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger.” Musical identities were a staple of radio programs early on, and later of television programs. I can easily recall the music that opened The Johnny Carson show, Gilligan’s Island, CBS Reports, etc. Younger people will have different memories, but still clear ones, I expect, for particular shows. Even the radio and TV networks have used their own sonic signatures, the most notable being the three chime tones of NBC.
These musical IDs also go beyond broadcasting. For a number of years the Democratic Party was associated with the song “Happy Days are Here Again,” and whenever one hears “Hail to the Chief” he/she knows the President of the United States will soon appear whether on TV or at a live event. Usually the Olympic Games are associated with a particular tune (sometimes with different arrangements) regardless of what country is hosting them.
There is also a specialized form of audio ID that many people do not know about: signature tunes created for shortwave radio stations. When I was a college student in the 1960s I was very interested in shortwave radio broadcasts — not the two way dialogue of amateur radio operators, “Hams” as they are often called in the U.S., but in programs produced by government agencies (usually) of various countries that provide information about, and promotion of, that country’s politics and culture. The United States produces these through the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), under the name “Voice of America,” just as other governments produce theirs through their own agencies. These are often produced in various languages and targeted to specific areas of the world at different times. The most famous, and probably the least propagandistic (since is not a direct arm of the government), is the BBC World Service. But even in the U.S. the USIA was run for a time by the famous CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow, during the last years of his life.
A problem with shortwave radio is that propagation of the signal can be sketchy at times and I found one had to tune very carefully in order to find a particular broadcast. The stations helped the listener by playing a “signature tune,” a short repeating musical phrase associated with the country, about five minutes before each new broadcast to aid the listener in recognizing the station. Printed directories that listed the various broadcasts of different stations – the frequencies, languages, target areas, etc. – would often include a small musical staff with the notes of the signature tune shown so someone trying to find a station for the first time could recognize its sonic “brand.” During my university years in the 1960s I was a big fan of Radio Prague, Czechoslovakia. To this day if I heard their signature phrase that was used at that time I would recognize it immediately. The use of signature tunes goes back even to the 1920s, so “audio branding” is not really new but just expanding.
As radio, and later television, developed, advertisers sometimes used tunes, often singing “jingles,” to help their ID and message stick in one’s head as an “ear worm” (a tune that is hard to get out of one’s head). I can still sing “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent” and “Pepsi Cola hits the spot / twelve full ounces, that’s a lot / twice as much for a nickel, too / Pepsi cola is the drink for you!” Yet these jingles ran in the 1950s and even earlier (when a 12 ounce Pepsi was a nickel!).
For many years audio branding mostly consisted of the kinds of examples I have given above. Of course television spots and programs used music, but often it was not “signature” music played consistently with a certain brand or program. It was just a musical environment to express emotion. The book Audio Branding makes the case for companies to create a certain sound that is always associated with the brand, whether an advert, podcast, promotion or whatever. The book provides success stories, especially from a large international sound design company that specializes in audio branding.
There are many good cases for concentrating on audio as a medium of advertising. As people are glued to their ear-buds and phones, audio-only programming, especially in the form of podcasts, gains a new importance. Many podcasts are sponsored by advertising thus creating a large, less limited, aural structure ideal for audio branding.
If one wants music or other sound for a brand, the question becomes how to acquire it. Although older musical compositions by Rossini and others are in public domain, some people, including me, can get annoyed that one cannot, say, enjoy the overture to the opera William Tell without thinking of The Lone Ranger. Also, even if a composition is in the public domain, specific modern audio recordings of that public domain music are also protected. So you can’t just take the music you like from a CD without permission and without, usually, paying royalties. It can be expensive to hire a custom orchestra, which is why many spots use music created by sampling synthesizers that can sometimes simulate the sound of an orchestra.
If somebody is producing, say, a documentary about some aspect of their business, or even a radio or TV spot and needs music to set a mood without having to pay huge royalties to use commercial recordings or to have custom music created, they often turn to library music. This is to music what stock photography is to custom photography. Companies create music of various moods and sell it relatively cheaply with all of it already cleared for broadcast or other public uses. As useful as it may be for casual use, library music is a poor choice for music intended to sonically establish a long-lasting brand identity. That is because it is sold to many customers and thus makes it hard to “stick” in someone’s mind as associated only with one brand. I once attended a showing of short films where three of the films on the program used the same library music. This problem is compounded by the internet where a person surfing YouTube might find several brands trying to use the same library piece as “theirs.”
The obvious solution for music or other sounds to establish an identity for a commercial brand, media outlet, organization, etc. is to have custom music created that can be owned in perpetuity by the organization commissioning the music. Sometimes music for a brand can even become so popular that it can be released as entertainment providing greatly increased exposure to the brand. (Think “I want to buy the world a Coke”).
The problem with custom music is it can be expensive. If it is created for a small number of instruments, or synthesizers are used in place of an orchestra, some production money can be saved but one still has to pay a composer/sound designer. Since the composer can only make the money once for a custom sonic logo, he or she may charge quite a high fee, but the advantages of owning a sonic ID are great.
Using skilled professionals for professional marketing work is usually required. When I was in the ad business I would sometimes go to a client and say “We need a good photo of your product for a print ad so we have arranged a photo session at so & so studio that will cost a few hundred dollars.” Sometimes the client would balk and say something like “my niece just graduated from college and has a 35mm camera and I am sure she will take the picture for $50.” The problem is a recent college graduate with a tiny 35mm camera usually lacks a studio with the lighting and skills needed for high end product photography not to mention the advantages, in terms of quality, of shooting on large format film rather than 35mm. (This was before the days of digital.) I would explain to the client that his or her business was going to be spending thousands of dollars running the print ads in magazines, so trying to save a few hundred on production would be “penny wise and pound foolish.”
In the world of custom music I am sure there are business owners who might say “My nephew just graduated from collage and creates music on his laptop computer using Garage Band and won’t charge much.” Unless the nephew is a budding Mozart (who composed very good music at a very young age) it is worth paying an experienced composer or sound designer for custom sounds.
Apart from original music, one thing I also learned in the ad business is that one can produce a very effective audio-only spot for a tiny fraction of the cost of a really good TV spot. Readers of The Audio Penguin are invited to read the post THE DEATH OF RADIO DRAMA IS EXAGGERATED. In that I have posted a few radio spots written and produced by beginning audio production students at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY. These student-produced audio spots have many very professional qualities. This would be harder for beginning students to do in television.
When I was in the advertising business in the Midwest I won numerous awards for radio spots produced for smaller clients with very limited budgets. If we needed to show a logo for a product, we often combined radio with outdoor advertising (“billboards”). The combination was still a fraction of the cost of really well-produced television and brought many customers to our clients.
The book, Audio Branding, tends to focus on music as the branding sound, but I want to also make the case for specific non-musical sounds as audio IDs. One of the most effective, to my mind, is the single “dun dun” sound that opens every episode of the TV series, Law and Order. It is believed to have been created as a sound that might reflect a jail door closing, but I understand that the sound designer for that audio ID combined about a dozen different sounds to get that specific sound. It is always recognizable though short a simple.
An advantage of using a sound that is not music is that it may be less cloying over time and less likely to create an “ear worm” that can be annoyingly hard to get out of one’s head. I don’t think many people walk around all day humming the opening sound to Law and Order. Also, a non-musical sonic “logo” keeps the focus on the message of the ad, rather than creating a musical “tune” that might distract from the message.
Readers of this blog may figure out that I am a big fan of non-representational sound for film, theatre, gallery environments, and now for audio branding. But that is a personal preference. If you use, or plan to use, a sound as identification, then please read Audio Branding, available from Amazon in print, Kindle and Audiobook versions.
Some people may have a different view of sonic identifications. Feel free to send me your views as comments.