What should a brand sound like?

That can mean a number of things—all of which are important when attempting to engage customers.

One component is a company’s audio brand. This ranges from the music used in commercials to the song playing when a CEO walks onto stage to the actual sounds that a brand’s product makes—the bleeps and blips that happen when you interact with it.

And companies also need to maintain a certain tone on social media, which can be hard to do if a brand suddenly finds itself on the wrong end of a Twitter boycott.

This month’s podcast provides tips for brands that want to create or manage their sound in a digital world.

Podcast Transcript

Emily STONE: We’re starting out today with a little pop quiz.

Can you identify this sound?

[sound of chimes]

What about this?

[electronic sound]

Ten points to anyone who correctly guessed the NBC chimes and the sound of a Mac computer turning on. What you may not know is that both sounds are part of their company’s “audio brand.”

The idea of audio branding is not new—the NBC chimes date back to the 1920s. But in the past few years, more and more brands have started to define their sound.

And branding is transforming in other ways, too. Look at the power of social media. It lets companies talk directly with consumers. But it also gives consumers a rapid-fire way to sound off against a brand. Today’s brands must know how to respond—quickly.

And cue our audio branded intro music … now.  

[music interlude]

Hello, and welcome to Kellogg Insight’s monthly podcast. I’m your host, Emily Stone. In this episode, we’re talking about new frontiers in branding. So stay with us.

[music interlude]

Steve MILTON: We ask brands the question, "What do you sound like?"  And a lot of them can tell you what they look like, but not many are able to say, or maybe haven't even thought about, what they sound like.

STONE: That’s Steve Milton. He’s a founding partner at Listen, an audio branding firm in New York City. Listen works with brands like Microsoft, Jim Beam, and Tinder to create or refine their sound.

MILTON: I think by and large, people are starting to think about this in a way that—maybe even 5–10 years ago—they weren't before.

STONE: One of the main components of an audio brand is the sound that companies use in advertisements and other communications, from messages on Snapchat to the music that plays when a CEO walks on stage to deliver a speech. Another component is the sound that the brand’s actual products make—the chirp that my dishwasher delivers when it’s done or the mildly reprimanding beep my freezer makes when I leave the door open too long.

While companies have used sound for years, the idea of cultivating an audio brand is more recent. Take Google Hangouts, for example.

MILTON: Originally they launched with some sounds for calling, for chat, for hanging up a call, and they seemed very in line with Google's brand of simple primary colors, but it sounds like maybe done rather quickly.

STONE: Then Google retooled these sounds in a more deliberate—and to Milton’s ear—effective way.

MILTON: They had a whole new set of sounds that were still very much in line with the kind of monophonic, rather simple, melodic assets, but those assets were more own-able. So instead of having maybe a default sound from a synth, they were sculpted in a way that I think is much more pleasing to the ear. The melody itself, it's a much more own-able melody. You wouldn't confuse it for anything: it's very distinct and it's very expressive too.

STONE: So how does a brand develop an audio identity? Here’s the process that Milton and his colleagues use at Listen.

MILTON: As you would for a visual identity, we're always starting with a discovery period where we're doing research, we're understanding what the brand is all about—personality traits, brand values. And as we're thinking about what the future sound identity that we're going to create is, that that is congruent with the visual identity and other aspects of the brand.

STONE: They also look at the competitive landscape, to see what related brands are doing in the world of sound. Then they identify “touch points” where sound can be part of a customer’s experience with a brand.

MILTON: Where are all of the places, from events through to commercials through to online content through to maybe on-hold music?

STONE: Then there’s generally some teaching that needs to happen. Because for many executives, this is the first time they’ve really thought about sound.

MILTON: Music and sound are really hard to talk about. And so when we are sitting with CMOs or CEOs, there is a bit of an education. Everybody having the same language around music and sound and those tools is a part of that process.

STONE: Because there are some general rules of thumb. Like the noise a machine makes when you turn it on versus when you turn it off. I can pretty much guarantee that whatever brand of computer or phone you’re using right now, the on noise goes up in pitch and the off noise goes down. That’s simply what we expect.

MILTON: It sounds obvious, but if you try creating something else and presenting that to someone, they will intuitively have this reaction that, "Shouldn't it go up?" kind of thing. We've seen that over and over again.

STONE: There’s a similar rule for actions that are paired with an opposite action, such as sending and receiving a text. We expect those sounds to be the inverse of each other.

We also know that certain kinds of sounds elicit certain kinds of emotions.

MILTON: If a brand identifies as empowering, then maybe we're going to be looking at the music emphasizing tension resolution, whether it be in a second long audio logo or a sound logo, or whether that be in a 2 minute composition that perhaps the CEO walks out on stage to.

STONE: One of Milton’s clients is Microsoft, which often uses rousing music in its ads. But when Listen worked on a specific Microsoft product, the new HoloLens, they wanted to convey a different feeling.

HoloLens is computer that creates a digital hologram. The device looks like a pair of goggles, and users wear it to interact with the hologram. To the user, it looks like they’re tapping or swiping parts of the hologram. To anyone else in the room, it looks like they’re waving their hands around in the air.

To give that experience some grounding, the designers at Listen wanted the tapping and swiping sounds to feel natural. So they recorded people tapping natural objects together.

MILTON: We wanted those sounds to have almost a physical property to them. So we recorded stones together; we recorded marbles together.

STONE: Another company that focuses on very natural, very human sounds is Skype. The company is all about human interactions, so it integrated that human element into its audio brand. Some of their early sounds were made by people blowing bubbles or blowing into ketchup bottles. And here is my favorite bit of trivia that I learned while interviewing Milton.

MILTON: The Skype login sound, for example, is a number of voices saying "Skype" and they're all blended together and morphed. Next time you hear it, you'll hear the Skype.

STONE: I know. Mind blown, right?

But, before you get too carried away, Milton cautions brands to exercise some audio restraint.

MILTON: Oftentimes we have to make sure that we're not overdoing it. With sound, you don't want to pollute the world, or you don't want to pollute the user experience. Like with Tinder, for example, there are many, many different points within the user experience where sound can play a role. But what we wanted to do was just focus on those where we think it would be very rewarding. So looking at “it's a match” as a key moment where sound can play a really, really positive role. Looking at messaging, and those types of things. But we definitely learned that maybe the swiping sounds for that, probably is not the right thing to do for the user.

I don't think you need that feedback, necessarily. It's such a repetitive motion.

STONE: Need any more convincing that good audio can get a consumer to connect with a brand? Listen to my colleague Jessica Love explain her favorite brand sound to Milton during our interview.

Jessica LOVE: When I do my laundry, my washer and dryer, they sing at me! It's like a (mimics song). It's delightful! That was clearly a really distinctive decision to add this to what is otherwise a pretty boring set of appliances.

MILTON: But it's basically telling you, "Hey! We're going to do some laundry!"

LOVE: "We're going to clean!"

STONE: It's like, "Look how happy you are talking to your laundry!"

LOVE: "Oh, it's so good to see you again! I'd love to help you out with this clothing chore."

MILTON: So it works.

LOVE: I like it.

MILTON: That's good.

[music interlude]

STONE: We’ve been talking about the sounds a company chooses for its brand. But what about this sound?

[a grumbling noise]

That’s the sound of an angry customer firing off a nasty tweet about a CEO’s political statement or a company’s tone-deaf ad campaign.

Companies across industries—from manufacturers to retailers—are struggling to learn how to best react when this happens.

Tim CALKINS: Branding is changing fairly dramatically now that we're into the world of social media and digital communication, and the whole process of managing or building a brand is changing as technology has evolved.

STONE: That’s Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg.

CALKINS: You look back and in the good old days, which might be five years ago, when you're building a brand, it was really about thinking very carefully about every element and you would think carefully about each piece of advertising you were creating and each print ad and the colors.

Now, of course, the world is so different, because if you look at Twitter or if you look at any social media platform, things move so fast and problems can become very big very quickly. And you look at the speed of it, it's really astonishing. So the problem is, you really have to respond quickly if you're a company. You can’t sit back and spend three, four, five days trying to think about the right response, and you can’t send this response off to the legal team to have them ponder on it, and then you send it to your PR team. That just doesn’t work anymore.

STONE: Think about the Twitter backlash against last year’s Academy Awards that prompted the Oscar So White hashtag, or the recent #DeleteUber campaign, which urged people to remove the Uber app from their phones and replace it with a competitor’s app.

This is not ideal for a brand, to put it mildly. So what’s Calkins’ advice?

CALKINS: Number one, as much as you can, you can try to stay out of trouble. A brand has to be very careful about steering clear of some issues. You don't want to turn off a huge portion of the consumer base.

STONE: And while Calkins acknowledges that this may be impossible at times, there are some key rules to follow. And they really come back to traditional ideas of branding—know what it is that your brand stands for and then limit yourself to conversations that fit your brand.

Calkins points to Starbucks as a brand that discovered this through some painful trial and error.

CALKINS: Howard Schultz, the CEO until recently has very strong points of view and he's a very strong leader. He's inclined to opine and get the brand involved in a lot of social issues and a lot of big causes. But sometimes that's a problem for them.

STONE: Two years ago, after a number of unarmed black men were killed by police, Schultz announced the company’s #racetogether campaign. He wanted Starbucks shops to be a place of conversation, where people of different backgrounds—both customers and baristas—would come together to discuss race.

CALKINS: And that was a very well-intentioned area to get involved in, but of course that was a total fiasco for Starbucks because people immediately started saying, "My gosh, the last thing I want to do when I'm getting my cup of coffee is have a big discussion about race and the history of the country and all of these difficult issues."

It was a conversation that didn't really fit with the brand of Starbucks in some ways. It was so bad, the head of communications at Starbucks said that he just discontinued his whole Twitter account.

STONE: But Starbucks learned from the mistake, Calkins says. Earlier this year, it launched a very on-brand campaign, “A Year of Good.” The ideas overlap some with the Race Together campaign, in terms of emphasizing kindness and community. But it’s far less controversial and it focuses on how Starbucks has been an agent of good, by hiring veterans, helping staff attend college, and creating jobs. The company’s Year of Good YouTube video got nearly 8 million views in its first three weeks.

CALKINS: All of that was of course very well received, because that's much closer to what Starbucks does. It's a little bit tighter to what they're doing. It's a positive good message.

STONE: But some missteps can’t be anticipated. What should a company do when it accidentally wades into a hot-button issue or shows poor judgement in a public statement? Calkins’s advice is to react quickly.

CALKINS: The problem is that that's really hard, though, because you have to figure out how do you respond, what's the right thing to say. How do you make sure what you're saying isn't going to make it worse? How do you make sure it's real? How do you make sure that it's appropriate? It's a huge challenge for companies.

So people have to have the autonomy to respond quickly, and companies have to be set up to move in a quick way. But organizationally, that is a big challenge. I was at a company just the other day and they're like, "Wow, just to even schedule a meeting is going to take a week." And that just doesn't work in the world of social media.

STONE: Sometimes that quick response is a straight up apology. That’s what Cinnabon did recently. When news broke that Carrie Fisher had died, the company tweeted out a picture of her, in full Princess Leia garb, with Cinnabon rolls in place of her famous hairdo. The text read: “RIP Carrie Fisher, you’ll always have the best buns in the galaxy.”

CALKINS: They put that out there, and everybody said, "My gosh, I can’t believe you did that; that was a terrible idea." But what happened then is, though, within an hour they pulled it off and then a couple hours later, they apologized. And then what happened is, the issue just went away. A lot of people said, “you know what that actually was sort of funny … so maybe it wasn’t such a big deal.”

STONE: Even if a company isn’t prepared to offer a speedy apology, Calkins says it can buy some goodwill and some time by jumping in quickly to say, “We’re looking at it and we’ll get back to you with more information soon.”

It’s also important to remember that no single tweet, however misguided, is going to make or break a brand.

CALKINS: You know it's not the end of the world if you say something goofy or inappropriate or wrong. This kind of communication is so fleeting.

It takes a different mindset because people have to begin to realize that we're not producing the piece communication that's going to last forever. We're not producing a piece of communication that anyone expects to be the final word in either elegance or precise wording or even truthfulness.

STONE: Here, Calkins points to our new president as someone who is incredibly comfortable with this different mindset.

CALKINS: Trump is master when it comes to brand building. He clearly is willing to go out there and polarize people, which is important in the world of branding, because if you're a brand, you have to stand for something and you have to realize not everybody is going to like every brand. Some people like Lululemon and some people don't. Some people like Mountain Dew and some people don't. That's just fine.

And I think maybe Trump's biggest strength when it comes to branding is his comfort with that. I don't think he has any intent of getting to the point where everybody loves Donald Trump.

STONE: But Trump is more than a branding whiz. He can be a major liability for other brands. He’s shown his willingness to jump on Twitter and blast Boeing or General Motors, or offer LL Bean his support, which in our polarized world can be problematic for a brand, too.

CALKINS: One of the things that's very true is you have to be ready to respond to a Donald Trump tweet. Number one is you have to have, again, the organizational structure, so you're ready to respond to it. But you also really need to think about what are the issues he might address. So you want to think about and you want to say, "Boy, he could easily come at us for this topic," or, "From what we know, this could be an area where we're vulnerable." And then you want to be ready to respond to it.

STONE: And that response is going to need to be rather delicate. Mass market brands in particular need to be very deliberate about how they walk the line between embracing and antagonizing the leader of the free world.

CALKINS: You know,  if you get into a fight with the government, the government's going to win. If you're an executive, you cannot come out and say, "I just don't support anything Donald Trump stand for." You have to be supportive, because you cannot be on his bad side.

On the other hand, you can’t be too supportive, because then people say, "I cannot believe you support Donald Trump—the guy's a rascal." And then all the people who don't like Donald Trump get mad at you.

STONE: So brands hoping for a broad customer base should simply try to sit on the sidelines during polarizing conversations. But what happens if our world gets so polarized that there no longer is a sideline?

CALKINS: I think that would be just be really hard for brands if that develops, because then you have, what kind of a brand is it? Goodness, then what happens to mass market brands? What's Coca Cola? Is Coca Cola a pro-Trump brand or is that an anti-Trump brand. And I can assure you that Coca Cola has no interest in that whole discussion.

[music interlude]

STONE: This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes.

Special thanks to Kellogg School professor Tim Calkins, Steve Milton of Listen, and Northwestern’s School of Communication for tipping us off about Steve’s visit to campus.

You can stream or download our monthly podcast from iTunes, Google Play, or from our website, where you can read more about branding, customer engagement, and leadership. Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another Kellogg Insight podcast.