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Sonic Branding: So Much More Than Jingles

How will voice technology impact brands of the future? When is silence better than shouting? We spoke to Cedric Engels of Sonhouse about the similarities and differences between his sonic branding work and the visual identity projects we do at Base.

How did you get into sonic branding?

I've always been very passionate about sounds. I started DJing when I was 13, and that escalated rather quickly. When I was 18, my father said: “You can do whatever you want, but you need to choose between becoming a lawyer and engineer or a doctor.” I chose sound engineering, but that wasn't okay. So I studied law but actually, that was perfect. If you study law, you don't have to go to class, so I could continue making music and diving into the world of sounds, and also focus on copyright law – there was an overlap with my passion.

Once I had my Masters in law, I jumped on the first train to London. There, I studied sound engineering and worked at a record label PIAS in London. Around the year 2011, I was wondering about the idea that we live in this multi-sensory world with a lot of visual stimuli, and visual branding reflects this, but what does a brand sound like? So I started Sonhouse in 2012, with the bigger idea to translate brands into sound, music, and voice. And since then, I've been working on many projects in the world of brands, but also in film, because it's the same philosophy somehow.

What exactly does sonic branding involve?

From a historical point of view, there's been a spontaneous way to use sounds. For example, in campaigns, we have “jingles”. But most of the time that’s something that happens at the last part of the production process. Variety tends to start at the beginning, based on the brand itself. The fundamentals for me when thinking about sonic branding is strategy slash creative. You start with the brand book. What is the mission? What are the values? What is the brand DNA? And once you’ve defined this, you translate it into sound, music and voice, and you start building an entire holistic sound system.

Branding is more than a visual logo, and sonic branding is way more than a jingle. It's an entire methodology and an approach where we do a workshop, and we have our milestones, and scientific but also creative exercises to be able to translate brands into a sonic spectrum.

How does sonic branding relate to visual identity? Are they usually created separately or in tandem?

The most important thing is that a brand, to me, is like a person. And once the heart and the fundamental DNA has been defined, you can start building a sound strategy. Because just like people evolve, brands evolve. If the fundamental elements are there and it's crystal clear, you can start building the sounds. In my experience, there have been two approaches.

The first is that we start once everything has been defined. So the strategy for the brand is there, and the entire visual identity, then we build upon these. The second approach is that the strategy is there, and the visual and the sound identity are built simultaneously.

There is a biological link between sound and vision: the way something looks has an impact on the way it sounds to us, and the other way around. Sharp shapes have sharp sounds, for example. Sound and vision are universally aligned. So I'm always very happy if there is a clear visual identity to start building upon, but we can do it together as well. Because I think there are some overlaps within the methodology, and how to approach a translation of a brand identity.

A scarf with "Soulwax" written on it lays on a blue carpet
Sonhouse sonic branding project for Pro League
A scarf with "Soulwax" written on it lays on a blue carpet
Sonhouse sonic branding project for Pro League

Do certain sounds naturally align with certain types of brands?

For me, it all starts with the idea that sound is emotion. If someone needs to make a choice, the first thing is rational, let's say price. But in the end, you will make an emotional choice. And that's where we can play with branding, both visual and sonic. Our first experience with sounds is in the mother's womb. Eyes are closed, but ears are already open and experiencing sounds that have an emotional effect.

But to answer your question, there is a scientific model that we use with parameters like tempo of a song, the BPM. If you have a slower BPM, this will typically give you a feeling of serenity. On the other hand, if you use something up-tempo, like 140 BPM, it's more joyful. But it also influences your behavior. If you're in the car listening to classical music, you will tend to drive slowly. But if you listen to like 180 BPM, you will tend to drive faster.

This behavior also translates in shops. We just created a radio channel for fashion designer Dries Van Noten. In general, sonic branding is translated into a deliverable like a score for a song that’s about one minute long. That is the entire sound universe. And then next to the song, you have a sound logo. But for Dries Van Noten, we created music playlists, which play 24/7. The idea is that you evoke the right emotion for visitors entering the shop in LA, Shanghai or Paris, but also evokes the right behavior. If you play loud, sharp, up-tempo music, people won't stay very long. If you play the music that fits the brand and the collection—bringing the idea of funnels and creative direction into music—then people will feel that there is a match and a strategy.

With visual branding, repeat exposure creates association and emotive responses to a particular brand. Is it the same with sound?

Again, brands are like people. So they evolve. A good example is James Bond. Its famous melody has been there for 60 years. But as James Bond has evolved as a character and a series, the instrumentation of the melody has evolved. Also, Bond is in India, you will hear a different instrumentation than when he's in New York, or when he's in a threatening situation compared to a romantic situation. But the melody is at the core and creates consistency. The same with a visual logo, it can evolve over time, but it's nice to have some brand assets that retain a heritage that an audience can relate to. I really believe in the consistency of a brand to tell the same story, while also allowing it to evolve.

What can those working in the world of visual branding and identity learn from the world of sonic branding?

One of the big learnings from sound can be building a system that is really flexible over time. From the work that I know Base has been doing, you have the same thoughts about building holistic systems that can really evolve and not be fixed. What you guys build is really something that can be applied across several touch points, but also something that can evolve over time.

Another thing that I always take into account is sound ecology. So this means a minimalistic approach. Mozart once said: “Music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.” So I always try to think, is sound reinforcing the message? Is it an added value for the user? And when that's not the case, I will always advise a client not to use sound, and to have it mute. Maybe that's the same with visual branding. It needs to support the brand like a signature or as an experience, or an entire world. But it shouldn't be shouting “here we are.” So my advice is to use silence as a touchstone. Visual silence. Sometimes nothing is better.

Portrait of Sonhouse founder Cedric Engels
Sonhouse founder Cedric Engels - Daniil lavrovski
Portrait of Sonhouse founder Cedric Engels
Sonhouse founder Cedric Engels - Daniil lavrovski

There are some obvious applications for sonic branding, like TV, advertising, stores. But are there any unusual or unexpected uses?

Yes, we work on UX in supporting how to use certain products and give an emotional message, rather than just information. We’ve created app sounds for example, when you open an application, or when the app has been updated, or when a certain file has been sent out. These sounds shouldn't be intrusive, but they should really support your usage.

In the world of retail, there is a lot of work to do. Because if you enter a store or shop, you should pay attention to the music or the sound message. In many cases, there is no strategy at all. And brands forget that when they play music, they're putting out a message with an impact. When they don't think about that, they’re maybe sending the wrong message.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the new evolution within 3D sound. So you have mono, and then there was stereo. It took a lot of time for people to realize that stereo was better than mono, until The Beatles started fooling around with it, and then people caught on. But the last step in this evolution is into 3D sounds. So there, I think there will be a new application for sonic branding, within experience.

Also, when you asked 20 minutes ago if it was okay to record the Zoom call, there was this artificial voice that said, “This meeting is being recorded”. So voice is also a new thing, and it's evolving. A brand voice is also becoming really important. Just like James Bond, he has his tone of voice: “Shaken, not stirred.” That’s also an application of sonic branding, which could be innovative. Is the artificial voice of a particular brand male, or female? Older or younger? Tongue-in-cheek or more serious?

What are some of the similarities between the work we do at Base, and your work at Sonhouse?

Combining the strategic part and the creative part of a project, because in general, branding is professionalizing. More and more brands are aware that they need a decent visual logo. But I think what Base and what we do goes beyond that. The first step is to understand the brand and the message they want to spread. Once the strategy is there, build a creative – visual or sound – system with the right designers. Because otherwise, everything looks the same or sounds the same. And that's where you can make a difference, by creating something distinctive. Not only different from the competition, but really distinctive, something that stands out.

There are these websites that offer a visual identity for 10 bucks, or a sound identity for 10 bucks, where a computer is creating it for you. But putting the right people on the project, creative people who bring a human touch to have something unique, is something we have in common.

Text by Base editorial director Dan Howarth.