Is Your Sonic Identity, or Lack of, Sabotaging Your Goals?

By Michael Boumendil, Founder and President, Sixieme Son

Sometimes in life, you put your best foot forward, and people treat you with indifference. You don’t get their attention, you don’t get to build relationships, and you don’t get a chance to show them who you are.

Brands are a lot like people in that way. Indifference is a crushing blow.

Interestingly enough, more brand managers are talking about sonic identity for the right reasons. A sonic identity grabs attention, promotes engagement and brand recall. It captures the consumers’ imagination, and transforms their perceptions of the brand. But — and it’s a big one — only if done correctly.

What is a Sonic Identity

A sonic identity is the essence of your brand translated into sound. It’s the idea that sound or a set of auditory elements are essential to distinguishing your brand and building a preference for it because it has something interesting to say or add, and is worth paying attention to.

Sonic identity is about your identity, it should work as well in one second just as it does in 30 minutes. To do that, it must be consistent and coherent across all touch points.

At its core, a sonic identity defines the experience of a brand. Do you want the sound of your Lamborghini’s engine starting to be the same as your Honda Accord? Of course not. Functional sounds should convey information, but they should also create an experience.

Why Sonic Identity is Table Stakes

We’re living in a world of information over abundance. Images and messages come at us from every direction. We are inured to words, and with the advent of AI, we can no longer trust images. Sounds stand out. A brand that lacks a sound identity needlessly takes itself out of the conversation.

Audio especially stands out in our multitasking lifestyle. A producer can create the most visually interesting commercial ever made, but chances are the TV viewer will turn away from the TV as soon as it comes on. She’ll pick up her phone, or go to the kitchen for a beverage. In fact, she may need to read about that commercial on social media first in order to learn that it was groundbreaking.

But sound can change that paradigm on its head for the simple reason that consumers can still hear commercials even when they’re sending texts or scanning their email. It’s 360-degree engagement.

And therein lies the opportunity to distinguish a brand, and give customers a reason to pay attention, to consider your brand and what you have to say.

Why Brands Miss the Mark with Sonic Identity

The current marketplace is filled with sonic identities that absolutely miss the mark. The challenge is that when brand marketers consider their brand identity, they have a long list of boxes that want to check. Worse, they want a sonic vocabulary that is appealing to everyone. They define the “perfect” sonic identity as one that covers a lot of ground, and ranks high on the likeability scale.

But this definition of a perfect sonic identity is guaranteed to fail. Rather than check a lot of boxes, it should have meaning and clarity. Every brand has a personality and a set of values that it stands for. Brands also have challenges to overcome and perhaps even market misperceptions that need to be reversed. The right sonic identity can convey your strength or overcome your challenge, but it needs to be hyper-focused on that goal.

Likeability is a trap. The new things we like are highly influenced by the other things we already like. But people are most inspired when we discover things we never knew we liked. Surprise is a powerful emotion, and it motivates people to seek and discover. Surprise me, and I’ll give you enough time and attention to start a relationship.

Likeability demands compromise, to the point where a sonic identity is generic. It sends a clear message to the consumer, which is, “we don’t have anything to say that might be of interest to you.”

In short, this approach will sabotage your goals.

Elements of Successful Sonic Identities

So what makes for a successful sonic identity? You need three elements, in my opinion.

First, you need recognition. If you use stock music, there is nothing to distinguish your brand from any other company that pays for that same music (I met with a brand manager who was quite pleased with his stock music selection, until I told him that 700 and counting companies were also using the same stock!).

Next, it needs meaning and clarity. It is incredibly easy to evoke a wide array of emotions and feelings with sound. Audio elements can tell the market that your brand is innovative, risky, safe, agile, hungry, whatever you want it to say. The trick is to ensure that there is an actual meaning behind it, and it’s not just pretty little sounds. A generic sonic brand identity leads to indifference and that’s the worst position.

Lastly, it must promote attention and engagement, but to do that, you need to take risks. Safe is generic; safe is market tested. But consumers are desensitized to market-testing audio, images, and words. It is the job of a sonic identity to break through the familiar with an unusual sonic vocabulary that instantly instills in the consumer a sense that you’re worth paying attention to. When you apply your sonic identity consistently and cohesively across all your brand touch points, it can amplify the impact of the communications you send to the market.

About the Author

Michael Boumendil serves as President and Chief Creative Officer of Sixième Son, the leading global sonic branding agency. Michael founded Sixieme Son in 1995 after conceiving the idea of using sonic identities to help brands be more powerful.

Michael combines his talents as a musician, composer, and brand strategist to guide clients in the creation of audio identities. He is now one of the very few experts in sonic branding. Based in New York City, he continues to build the agency to serve brands around the globe from offices in Chicago, London, Barcelona, Paris, Toronto and Singapore. He regularly speaks at international conferences about sound as a powerful, meaningful, and effective universal language for brands.