Your brain on sound: marketing and the neuroscience of sonic identity

Among marketers, you may hear (pun intended) a growing buzz around sonic branding and identity. A recent “state of the industry” survey conducted by MediaVillage/The Meyers Report asked respondents what industry topics they’d need help explaining to others. Sonic branding ranked No. 1 on the list, ahead of blockchain, cryptocurrencies and NFTs.
Most are intimately familiar with visual and verbal identity, but what exactly is sonic identity? Think of it as the use of audio cues—including sonic logos, anthemic sound design and curated vocal talent—brought together to improve brand recognition, affinity and ultimately, purchase intent. Studies reveal that audio cues are often far more effective than visual ones when it comes to messaging. Yet, according to Ipsos, despite the rise of screenless, voice-led computing, less than 10% of brands take advantage of sound’s natural advantages.

Neuroscience: your brain on sound

“It all starts in the brain,” said Dr. Paul Zak, Claremont University professor and author of “Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and The Source of Happiness.” Zak pointed out that our sense of hearing is fundamental, even primal. “Sound is deep into your brainstem. It can make your heart rate go up or force your palms to sweat,” he said.

From a branding perspective, the central point is that auditory stimuli often remind us of certain emotional states and memories. This type of brand connection is exactly why we’re seeing a demand for integrated sound strategy in advertising. Audio drives deeper attention and immersion than any other media channel, including video, TV and social media, according to the Engaged Impressions study by Audacy.

How audio influences behavior

There are a number of sonic touchpoints that companies can employ when crafting a powerful sonic identity.

1. Sonic logos. Audio cues make effective mnemonic devices, and sonic logos provide a powerful method of reinforcing a company’s visual and verbal identity. Some marketers create a sonic logo toolkit with variations based on mood, genre, length or format. Others prefer to focus on one “hero” sonic logo and implement it across all ad messaging.

The key is determining which tactic will best connect with target audiences, and then ensuring consistent implementation across channels and commercials. For example, some advertisers have moved away from the melodic jingles we might associate with McDonald’s or State Farm, and instead to short yet still-hummable formats suitable for use across a variety of applications.

2. Music and brand anthems. We’ve all listened to a favorite song over and over. The challenge for marketers is to find the music or brand anthem that connects on that deeper level. One that both aligns with a brand’s core DNA, and also triggers that positive brain chemical reaction that gets target consumers to pay attention. Just listen to Burger King (again, pun intended), whose inescapable tunes are hard to miss on TV or TikTok. The “You Rule” songs hit the mark with undeniable catchiness and strong frequency.

3. Voice. The desire for human-to-human contact is universal. Smart advertisers understand that it’s crucial to find the right voice to make a powerful connection in the audial space. Vocal talent has become more than just someone reading scripts, but instead a frontline ambassador whose intonation immediately signals alignment with your brand personality.

Outside of the advertising realm, the rise of audio-first platforms like podcasting and digital assistants has companies interacting more than ever with consumers through voice. A well-planned vocal strategy can elevate a brand’s identity throughout every audio touchpoint.

4. User experience sound design. From new worlds in the metaverse to modern appliances linked to the internet of things, the field of sonic interaction design is booming as companies increasingly use auditory signals to shape positive consumer experiences. A well-designed product soundscape should not only communicate with users during the user experience, but also spark delight. And soon, sound will be a user’s primary interaction tool. You heard it here first.

Focus on sonic identity

Best Buy gets it. In both the physical and digital worlds, this best-in-class retailer demonstrates smart practices in sonic strategies through an ad campaign that revolves around little “victories,” or everyday life accomplishments made possible by technology. Across multiple channels like TV, social video, radio and streaming audio, the company employs an original, glissando-like audio cue, like the ding or clink emitted by electronic devices. Best Buy’s proprietary sound—designed to remind consumers they’ve completed something—comes at the end of each commercial. It’s original. It’s memorable. It’s evocative.

Focusing on the auditory experience of consumers makes good business sense. Sonic brand cues are almost nine times more likely to deliver a high-performing ad. Brands that use music matching their brand identity are 96% more likely to be recalled than those with non-fit or no music.

Wrapping this up, as the chief marketing officer of Audacy, I’m biased, but the way a brand sounds is just as important—if not more—than how it looks.