Today’s new must have – sonic branding – was born out of necessity almost one hundred years ago.

In the 1920s, nascent radio networks needed a way to alert engineers at affiliates across the United States when a new program was starting. These early attempts at switching over of the broadcast weren’t the most elegant transitions, often creating jarring audible clicks and pops. The industry adapted quickly, creating short musical sequences that hid the unwanted sounds while also signaling the beginning of a new program; a win-win for the broadcaster and the audience. The pioneering National Broadcasting Company (NBC) eventually settled on a 3-note sequence: G, E, then C. Through the rise of television and OTT, through mergers, acquisitions and infinite changing public taste the NBC chime still plays today, one of oldest and most recognized examples of sonic branding.

The radio era also gave us jingles as an aural way for brands to differentiate. Finding a true earworm has never been easy, but when it hits —think, “Nationwide is on your side”, HBO’s static TV introduction, the roar of the MGM lion— they create an almost intuitive bond with a brand.

For a while it seemed that not only did video murder the radio star, it also put a knife in the idea of sound as a stand-alone medium. In the realm of everything old is new again, audio is back in the spotlight. People are once again listening. According to eMarketer, 77 million people in the U.S. listened to podcasts in 2019, and that number is expected to grow to 85 million, nearly 40% of the digital audio listening population, by 2023. And that represents just 40% of the digital audio listening population. Spotify has an estimated 75 million U.S. listeners; Amazon Music 43 million; Apple Music 37. The global pandemic has impacted listening as of late, though data suggests audiences are coming back and – for now – shorter content is drawing more attention.

But the above is all about listening. It’s passive. Today, technology requires brand-consumer interactions to be active; they are two-way conversations. Our smartphones all have personal assistants apps who do more than just answer search queries. Our mobile apps respond to our questions and provide utility through our connected cars, Internet of Things appliances and smart speakers – and the technology responds back to us.

In the one dimensional days when communication fed only from brand-to-consumer, marketers put a lot of weight on brand sound in connection to television commercials and radio spots. As the market changed, sound took a back seat to visual design. The perception was that brands were seen more than they were heard, so much more rigor and care was put into perfecting the brand’s look and feel was consistent, leaving sound in limited roles like jingles and spokespeople.

Today, sound is back in the forefront. How a brand sounds doesn’t merely deserve the level of attention and detail given to visual branding. It demands it.

Contemporary sonic branding is the art of developing and executing consistent audio design across all channels. It addresses the intersection between the passive way a brand is heard and the active participation of how a brand converses, creating one common aural experience

A modern, effective sonic branding strategy still utilizes the legacy ways brands used to think of passive sound. Mnemonics and jingles play and important role, but consumer habits compel marketers to think more broadly. Should a brand produce owned aural content like podcasts? What is the role of sound through the entire consumer engagement journey? Is there an an opportunity for transaction or point-of-sale sound?

Brand conversations are the true test of whether or not a sonic branding strategy is effective and robust enough for the the current world. The content of these interactions is still paramount, but so is the sound. When a customer is interacting with your brand via voice command, what kind of (literal) voice does your brand have? What type of inflection, tone, verbiage, and level of playfulness or seriousness is appropriate?

The presence of sound in our lives shows no sign of slowing down. That simple fact lays out a very complex challenge for brands. Presence is dependent upon aural experience. The quality of sonic branding strategy will determine the effectiveness of overall brand strategy. It’s that important.