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Björn Þorleifsson is Head of Research & Insights at amp sound branding — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
BT: I am Björn Þorleifsson (pronounced “Thorleifsson”), and I’m Head of Research & Insights at amp sound branding, which is a global Sonic Branding Agency. We’re owned by advertising company WPP: they work on brand identities, and then we take over the the sound.
JC: You recently released a report called The Best Audio Brands of 2023. We’ll go through the winners, I think, in just a second. But why why is it important for brands to think about their audio?
BT: Simply, audio is one of the most effective ways to reach customers. You know, it’s known that musical ad campaigns are 27% more likely to report large business effects compared to non-musical campaigns. If the music is aligned to your brand identity, it is 96% more likely to be remembered by customers. So all these brands that are using audio also need to think about it strategically, and that is often something that is forgotten about, or an afterthought.
JC: What do you mean by strategically?
BT: When brands are using sound, they’re often using stock music; or for a specific campaign, they maybe do a piece of custom music or licensed music. In terms of expenditure, if you are licensing music and use it for maybe one campaign, it’s a lot of money. And then, maybe if it’s put on YouTube, you need to take it down after one year or even less. But if you have a sonic identity, then you are investing in building brand equity. And therefore, if brands want to be remembered - as well as lower their expenditure - they should think about sonic branding strategically.
JC: Some of the most famous sonic identities in the world are those from companies like Intel. We all recognise that, of course.
BT: We do. It’s interesting that you mention Intel; because Intel is often considered as the pinnacle of good sonic strategy. But it was done quite some time ago, and we actually researched some young students in Denmark. And there was a lot of brand confusion here. People were saying, oh, it’s Microsoft, it’s Intel, it’s Hewlett Packard, or other brands, because their strategic strategy was really good at the time for, you know, making it used everywhere, whether it was advertising intel on its own or whether it was with Dell or other companies. So now that we’re moving to all these other types of advertising, not just TV, maybe it’s worth thinking about how they can expand their sonic identity to not just have a sonic logo, but having it incorporated into all their touchpoints.
JC: I remember I was working in commercial radio back when Intel started with their sonic logo, and I know that we got 20% of the ad cost for local clients paid for by Intel as long as you put their jingle in. You can understand now why there might have been a little bit of brand confusion there, I guess.
JC: So looking at the audio brands of 2023, how how did you do the research, first of all?
BT: It’s important to understand that Best Audio Brands is a report that is not looking at the effectiveness of a single sonic asset. Other companies like Veritonic look at those and release a report every year looking at how effective a sonic logo is. So, what we are doing is we are looking at the strategy. We look at 12 months of content from these brands on social media channels, on TV, looking into how are these companies using the assets that they have - or if they don’t have assets, are they using more custom music rather than using licensed music or stock music? And then we get a good picture of the overall strategy.
JC: So it’s a whole look at the at the toolbox that they’re using. McDonald’s is an interesting case because there is lots of different versions of that particular jingle.
BT: That’s very true; but then they also spend a lot of money on working with artists, and using their licensed music on those campaigns. And when they’re doing a licenced campaign, then they’re not building brand equity - unless the consumer waits right until the end of the ad. AMP is a firm believer that you can incorporate your sonic identity throughout the campaign, in the commercial throughout. We are now having commercials on YouTube that last just five seconds, and podcast ads, and so on. As a brand, how are you making sure that you are remembered from the very beginning? If your sonic logo is just at the end, then most likely in today’s age, people won’t hear it.
JC: How many do you know how many brands have sonic logos? Is it the majority?
BT: That’s a complicated question. When you say brands in general, then unfortunately the minority have a sonic identity. But in the Best Audio Brands report, a majority has - because of course we’re trying to capture the best audio brands.
JC: From a podcast point of view, hugely important to have a really obviously recognisable sound of your brand because sound is all you have?
BT: Absolutely. More and more brands are coming to realise that they can use their sonic identities within podcasts - it’s still quite often a missed opportunity. And a good example is Acast. I’m sure you’re familiar with the company. Before an advertisement starts they have their sonic logo, to let you know that it’s Acast commercials that are about to happen. But then the brands that are then using Acast to publish their commercials, they don’t have that sort of logo. So, you know, Acast is there, and then you hear a podcast without a sonic logo. To me, that’s as if Acast gets it - they understand the power of sound, but a lot of the brands don’t.
JC: Their little jingle is called The North Star, by the way, which might come up in a pub quiz in ten years. That’s a good example. What’s the difference between a a jingle and a sonic branding?
BT: Well, a jingle falls under the umbrella of sonic branding. But if you want to have a holistic sonic identity, it is important that it’s flexible, unique and memorable. What do I mean by flexibility? Back in the day, we had only sonic logos at the end. Then in the early 2000, a lot of companies started having like a corporate jingle - no fancy lyrics, but just a track that they used on everything. But with different storytelling that a brand needs to do… you know, sometimes they’re saying something that is funny, sometimes they’re saying something that is more serious. When you think about what happened through the pandemic - all the commercials sounded the same, you know, melancholy piano music. If a brand has a sonic identity, they could have incorporated that identity in any type of musical genre or storytelling, like whether it being sad, happy, uplifting and so on. A jingle is maybe making a comeback because Burger King just started using that old jingle from the seventies. But then again, it’s a modern twist on it and being flexible so they can put it into different genres and so on.
JC: The top three of your best audio brands of 2023 - who were they?
BT: Well, if we go from the bottom, it was Aviva and then it’s Shell, and number one is MasterCard. What all these brands have in common is having a holistic identity, meaning they’re not just relying on a single asset, but they have multiple ingredients, you could say. So melodies and riffs, and you can use those in different types of commercials, different types of sonic touchpoints.
A good sonic identity should be similar to James Bond. When you think about Shirley Bassey, Adele, and all the music that’s been done for the films inbetween, you always know it is James Bond because it has these ingredients. It’s the harmony, it is these iconic melodies. And then the artists that are meant to create new James Bond songs, they get this toolbox and then they can pick and choose what ingredients they want to use to create something new.
For brands, this is fantastic in terms of cost also, because they’re not creating new copyright. So if you go back to McDonald’s and them working with artists, for example, BTS, they had this meal thing, you could get the BTS meal, you know. How amazing would it have been if McDonald’s would have had a little bit more of a rich sonic identity? And then BTS would have reinterpreted the sonic identity of McDonald’s? You know, that would have been unbelievably effective because, you know, the BTS fan army would have gone absolutely bananas over it. And, you know, then even the royalties of the track would have had to be shared probably with McDonald’s and BTS, because it would have been the copyright, at least partially of McDonald’s. So there is opportunities for brands to really use sound in new and innovative ways to reach target audience that it would not otherwise.
JC: What’s your advice for companies who are looking at how they sound, who are looking at producing a sonic toolkit, if you like?
BT: Well, first of all, think about it when they’re doing campaigns. Are they spending money on custom music, or are they using licensed music. I’m not advocating that licensed music is bad - but is it absolutely necessary for the storytelling? Sometimes the music is an integral part of the commercial. But if it isn’t, wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on creating a sonic identity where it is building brand equity for the brand?
When CMO’s and the marketing department start thinking about this journey that they’re about to go on to really think about making sure that it represents the brand, but not just in a single sonic asset as a sonic logo, because those days are over. You cannot just have a sort of logo and think, okay, I’m done, I have a sonic identity - because what we’re seeing is that that is just simply not enough. You can’t build the memory structures within consumers brains by only a short sonic logo.
JC: Having been on an awful lot of flights recently, Qantas have paid the rights for I still call Australia Home, which is a very popular song here. They have lots of different versions of that. So as soon as you’re on a plane, you know that this is a plane run by an Australian company and the whole thing is very cleverly choreographed.
BT: Absolutely. But you could also think about if they had an identity that isn’t a licensed track that is strongly associated with Australia, if they would have their own identity, which could be used when they are advertising Australia in Australian music. But let’s say you’re they advertising and your destination to Bali or to China or God knows where. Yeah. Then they could have reinterpreted their identity in those cultural musical types for example. So I guess it would be pretty hard with that song.
JC: So where can people find out more about your work and the best audio brands of 2023?
JC: You would say that because you wrote the thing! And there’s also a YouTube video of the top ten which includes all of the audio as well.
BT: Yes, there might be some brands that the world doesn’t recognise, but there are brands that have really managed to do it in their local markets in an exceptional way.
JC: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
BT: Thank you. It’s an absolute pleasure talking to you.
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