News & Press

Looking back at the origins of sonic branding

Stephen Arnold, President of Stephen Arnold Music, is recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts in the use of sound and music to identify a company or a product – otherwise known as sonic branding. His company’s “Commanding Sonic Branding” approach has brought an unforgettable audio signature to some of the world’s top brands, including The Weather Channel CNN Headline News, Fox Business Channel, HD Net, ESPN Outdoors, The French Open (Tennis Channel), Dan Rather Reports, as well as 150+ stations across America.

In this new weekly series, Stephen Arnold gives readers his insights on this deep topic. The first edition begins with a look back at the origins of sonic branding.

Q: When and where did sonic branding begin?
A: There’s nothing new about the sonic brand, it’s been going on for tens of thousands of years. Think about the rooster crowing, the thunder from the lightning. All these things are basically the foundation of what a sonic brand is: They evoke an emotional response when somebody hears it.

What a sonic brand really does is evoke something in your brain that says, “Hey, go do this,” or “Get ready for that,” or “Watch out!” So when you heard thunder, you’d go into the cave for shelter, or when you heard the rooster crowing you knew it was time to get up and go to work plowing the fields. Or your brain would be able to differentiate between whether you were hearing a snake in the grass, or just the wind.

That’s the relationship from a psychological, scientific perspective of what sound does. It’s interesting because the only way sound can work that way is if it’s connected to something that happens over and over again: It’s the repetition of sound that causes us to say, “I need to go and do this now.”

Q: Fast forward to today – how did this lead to famous sonic signatures like your Weather Channel ID, or the sound of CNN Headline News?
A: I don’t think mankind one day just said, “OK, we’re going to take a sound and exploit it.” It was obviously an evolutionary process. Because it went from being just nature to everything around us: the whistle of a train coming into a station, an alarm clock, a boiling coffee pot, your Blackberry, car keys in the ignition…you name it. If you made a list of all the sound signals you heard throughout the day, from the moment you woke up until you went to bed, it would be unbelievably long – you can’t consciously think about all the ways you use sounds in your life.

But at some point our tendency to associate sounds with events and reactions was recognized as, “We can use this to get people to remember our products or services.”
In the commercial aspect, many times a listener feels like they hate a sonic brand, and they’ll say, “I don’t want to hear that again.” But as we point out in some of our presentations, “Sometimes you love it. Sometimes you hate it. And sometimes you hate that you love it!”

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