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On the rise of sonic branding in the financial industry

  • Contactless pay continues to increase in popularity. Meanwhile, consumers are turning more than ever to voice technology and online audio.
  • Financial firms are taking steps to keep up – and that means zeroing in on sonic branding.
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On the rise of sonic branding in the financial industry

In June, Mastercard released an album featuring ten songs that incorporate its sonic brand, called Priceless.

Mastercard first started using a sonic brand back in 2019. The release of the album was part of its initiative to bring its sonic brand to more ears.

“Music is one of the most popular global passions – it connects everyone no matter your background,” said Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer, regarding the album.

One of the songs featured in Mastercard’s new album

The news seems to point to an emerging interest in sonic branding development within the financial industry.

Mastercard isn’t the only card company that has been taking steps to deepen its sonic brand – American Express has been developing its own sound identity as well. Recently, it expanded its sonic branding initiative to be heard when people use Amex to pay for their purchases.

The firm behind Amex’s sound is Made Music Studio, a sonic branding and design agency. Danielle Venne, evp, executive music producer and director of innovation at the company, said the main goal of developing Amex’s brand had to do with shifting from a sense of exclusivity to one of accessibility. 

“Amex at the time was trying to shift from a place of being something premium and exclusive where maybe not everybody is welcome to a place where they wanted to say, ‘Look, we back you to thrive,'” she said.

According to Venne, Amex has been taking non-auditory steps in this direction for a while now, including celebrity sponsorships for its Small Business Saturday initiative, as well as its own sponsorships of sporting events and concerts. Its sonic brand adds another dimension to that – one that could catch consumers’ attention when they aren’t looking.

“When you’re making a purchase, you’re kind of checked out or you’re paying attention to something else visually. So you might not look on the screen and see the Mastercard logo or the Visa logo or the American Express logo come up,” said Venne. “But you’re going to hear that little sound when the card reader rings.”

Amex’s sonic logo

When it comes to what goes into building a sonic brand like Amex’s, Venne refers to what’s called a sound board, which is essentially the sound equivalent of a visual board – where people brainstorm images that come to mind when thinking of a certain brand. The sound board involves doing the same thing, but with sounds.

“And that’s where we start understanding what ‘grounded and secure, but culturally connected’ sounds like. And we have reference points – types of music that everybody around the table [agrees brings the brand to mind],” she said

As for this brainstorming session, Venne highlights the importance of working directly with the clients.

“And I’m not just talking about suits, either. We’re talking about advertising agencies, all major stakeholders – brand managers, marketing people – so everybody’s getting input into what the brand sounds like.”

Once this brainstorming session is finished, then comes the composition step, which essentially involves scooping up all these sounds into one condensed piece of music that becomes the sonic brand.

“And it’s not just those questions of notes – it’s the tempo, the rhythm, the instrumentation, the supporting harmony that goes on underneath those notes, all of that stuff,” said Venne.

One challenge that comes with creating a payment sound is finding that balance between pleasant and neutral. The sound a consumer hears when using her card needs to be just pleasant enough to create a positive connotation for the brand, and just neutral enough to be respectful of the person’s shopping experience.

Venne recalled her coworker saying, ‘You could be buying a coffin.’ But even for a less painful purchase – say groceries – she points out that in general consumers don’t want to feel like their shopping experience is being editorialized. Brands need to be wary of that.

“I don’t always need to hear a little jaunty tune that reminds me that I’m using a certain card,” said Venne. “Like I know I’m using that card and I might not want to hear the corporate brand sing back to me, ‘Good job!’ I don’t need that.”

Payment companies’ deeper dive into sonic branding seems to be linked with the rise of contactless pay. 

Dominic Burnham is a sonic brand consultant at Sydney-based Resonance Sonic Branding. According to him, as consumers look less at their cards, payment companies need to find a way to clear their throats and say, ‘Hey, remember us?’

“As we’re seeing, it’s increasingly a struggle for brands to own that moment [of payment], because people are increasingly using their Apple Watch or their phone. And that means this moment ends up being owned by Apple, or Google. And being able to kind of wrestle back some of that control and go, ‘Now hang on, actually, this is an ING card so that sound should be an ING sound, not an Apple sound’ – this is a battle that these brands are going to have,” said Burnham.

Another thing Burnham points out is that we seem to be entering a world that’s more auditory in nature. In the US, 73% of consumers listen to online audio on a monthly basis – up from 68% in 2021, according to a report by Edison Research. Meanwhile, audio advertising was reportedly the fastest-growing advertising segment in 2021, up almost 60% compared to the year before, according to IAB’s internet advertising report.

“I think the audio logo [plays a really pivotal role] in moments of advertising or product placement where you don’t have a visual stimulus. So when we’re talking about voice search, let’s say, being able to have an audio logo which people recognize as yours will allow you to advertise in that medium very easily, in a very short time.”

One example Burnham likes to bring up is McDonalds’ ba da ba ba bah. In the future, a consumer could potentially ask Alexa or Google, or any other virtual assistant, to show them a place to eat nearby. McDonald’s could theoretically sponsor that inquiry.

“And this could suddenly make you think, ‘Oh, should I get McDonald’s?’” he said. “But there aren’t many other brands that could do that, because they don’t have that asset. So this moment in voice search is a really interesting time.”

And it’s not just payment companies that want in on this sonic branding potential. Banks are taking sonic steps as well. Resonance Sonic Branding has worked with a few Australia-based banks in building their own unique sound.

“Banks in Australia have always been big advertisers, and they’ve always had big budget adverts and high production value,” said Burnham. “They’re generally storytelling types of brands. And they often try to come across as this kind of personal authority, and they try to make a personal connection with a customer, because their products are largely homogenous.”

One recent project the consultancy did had to do with the rebranding of Commonwealth Bank, or CommBank, a Sydney-based financial institution with around 16 million customers. 

In 2020, CommBank refreshed its brand by removing the black from the diamond in its logo, and keeping it all yellow. Resonance made changes to the bank’s audio logo to reflect this new, modernized look.

CommBank’s new sonic logo

“I believe it was a six-note melody and then we changed one note and took another note out, to make it a more modern interpretation and expression of that, and also to match the new animated lock-up in their advertising.”

This idea of modernizing an incumbent brand can be tricky, says Burnham. One pitfall may be the default use of outdated sounds to reflect something more current. One example he gives is the use of typewriter sounds to reflect writing. Even though no one under the age of thirty has ever really used a typewriter before, it’s still a sound commonly associated with the act of putting pen to paper – or finger to keyboard.

In the world of finance, those outdated yet still used sounds tend to include coins and cash registers. 

“As soon as you play these sounds, people think of money. But soon, that’s not going to be the case and they’re going to be disassociated or incongruous,” said Burnham. “So an interesting challenge for financial services brands [is then] how to represent money in a digital age.”

The irony then may be that to find the sounds that reflect stability, clarity, and of course money, banks may need to enter the world of the intangible and the abstract – arguably the exact opposite. That’s a challenge – especially since this tends to be an area prone to subjective interpretations.

“The concept of talking in terms of music and feelings and mood – it gets a little dicey and sometimes it’s a really big challenge,” said Adam Clairmont, director of studio operations at Overit, an Albany-based marketing agency. “Let me tell you, anything [that has to do with] branding, when you’re talking about putting a mark on a company that’s going to be used in every touchpoint, for the next 20 to 30 years, a lot of people want to weigh in – as they should. That’s a very, very important decision.”

One way to make it through the pitfalls of the vague and the abstract may be to simply embrace them. Overit, for example, has itself worked with financial institutions. A lot of the work in the beginning is very much emotion-driven. It’s a process of taking words that come to mind when thinking of a brand, and converting them into a sound that resonates with the meaning of that word.

“It’s less tangible,” said Clairmont. “It’s more philosophical, like [asking], ‘What does this word make me feel like?’ And then trying to create a mood that personifies that.”

In the case of CAP COM Credit Union, a financial institution Overit recently worked with, the idea was to reecho a sense of trust through the sonic brand.

CAP COM’s sonic logo

“If you’re talking about a sector that is handling people’s money, their finances, their future – something that people hold near and dear, at the core of that you’re talking about a company that will live or die by trust,” said Clairmont. “So part of what sonic branding and the sonic logos can do for a brand is create brand visibility, relatability, recognition, but also loyalty.”

In a way, a sonic logo acts very similarly to a visual logo, in that its aim is to meet consumers at more touchpoints – in this case ones that aren’t necessarily related to the visual world. 

“You wouldn’t create a visual logo, and then never show it anywhere. You wouldn’t omit that from your website, you wouldn’t omit that from your business card, and you wouldn’t omit that from your letterhead. You’re going to include that logo in all your customer touchpoints,” said Clairmont. “The same thing goes for where we can deliver audio. (…) Because without anyone saying the name CAP COM or without any spokesperson verbally saying anything, we want to be able to deliver a message to anyone within earshot that hey, CAP COM’s nearby. And that’s really powerful.”

For now, sonic branding still sort of feels secondary to visual branding efforts. And that may be even more true within the traditional financial industry, which only recently seems to have recognized the importance of marketing in sticking out among new competitors. Still, according to Clairmont, the lack of acknowledgement of sonic branding has less to do with a lack of interest and more to do with a lack of understanding.

“The interesting thing to me is that when I go into meetings with companies or brands, or even just have a fun, nerdy conversation with friends and I use the term ‘sonic branding’, usually I just get blank stares. Like, ‘What? What did you just say? I’ve never heard of that term. What even is that?’” said Clairmont. “So that’s kind of the crux of the problem. People aren’t aware that it’s a thing. But it takes no time at all to make them aware that oh, they do actually know about it. They just never really heard that term.” 

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