Brand Identity / 03.13.2019

Weekly Lightning Chat: MasterCard’s new sonic brand identity

MasterCard recently debuted what it’s calling a sonic brand identity—a “distinct, memorable melody that will serve as a foundation for its sound across the globe,” from point-of-sale chimes to telephone hold music. The announcement (appropriately introduced via audio press release) triggered both interest and eyebrow raises from the brand nerds among us at Grafik. Is the concept of a “sonic identity” really a new one? Or is it just a slicker label for the good ol’ corporate jingle? And during an era in which half the country owns a smart speaker, does every brand need a signature sound?

Let’s start with what distinguishes a sonic brand identity from that of a lowly jingle. In theory, the former is associated with a brand for the long haul (making it as important as the visual logo), while a jingle is just a few notes at the end of a radio or television ad. But through the sustained use of tropes like “I’m Lovin’ It” and “We Are Farmers,” brands like McDonald’s and Farmer’s Insurance have been able to elevate the use of jingles and lodge their tunes deep within the consumer psyche. Whether it’s whistled, tapped out playfully on a keyboard, or crooned by a bunch of Minions, hearing “Ba-da-ba-ba-ba” is sure to conjure a craving for greasy french fries.

The problem with MasterCard’s new sound is that it isn’t all that…memorable. I had to play it over and over again just to write this article because I kept forgetting what it sounded like. There are no accompanying words to commit its meaning to memory. And as some commenters pointed out, the airy string ensemble doesn’t exactly embody MasterCard’s weighty, spherical logo in the way that a more bass-heavy sound could. To be fair, years of aural conditioning could (pardon the pun) change our tune on the matter. MasterCard plans to use this “wherever consumers engage with Mastercard—be it physical, digital or voice environments”—so the true test of success will be whether consumers come to recall/associate the brand with its sound.

Outside the more traditional realm of advertising, digital storefronts, mobile apps and user interfaces all present opportunities for custom audio. Tech products like Facebook, Slack, and Venmo each have distinct sounds, which help users audibly recognize they’ve received a comment, a message or a payment without even having to look at a screen.  Consumer brands are following suit, especially with the rise of smart speaker devices. For example, when I get a push notification from the ESPN app, my device chirps out an abbreviated version of the well-known Sports Center tune. And notifications from Houzz, an app focused on residential architecture and interior design, are announced via a “ding-dong” doorbell sound.

Physical environments have perhaps the most potential to create multi-sensory attachments between consumers and brands. One of our creative directors mentioned the feeling of relief he gets when a United Airlines flight touches down and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” begins to stream over the loudspeakers. Our marketing specialist, who happens to be a musical scholar, pointed out that the oboe and woodwind instruments used in the piece are considered classically American. United’s decades-long licensing of the piece—and the strategic touch points at which they play it—undoubtedly cast a halo effect over how people experience their brand.

If you’re trying to figure out whether your company needs a sonic brand identity or not, think about where you interact with customers. What sounds may enhance that experience, or create more explicit recognition of what makes you special?

Lauren Howell

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