The New Sounds of Selling
Forget full-blown jingles. Smart marketers are using music clips, beeps, and other sound bites to make consumers salivate in seconds.
By Thomas Mucha

(Business 2.0) – In 1994, composer Walter Werzowa called Intel's marketing offices and played a chord on his electronic keyboard, following it with an ascending four-note phrase. "It was a little tinny," says Ann Lewnes, now Intel's vice president for sales and marketing, "but it was short and memorable." Werzowa kept working, mixing in 20 other digital sounds--including those of a xylophone, a marimba, a tambourine, bells, and a hammer striking a pipe--until he had created the two-second musical snippet that consumers would come to associate with the words "Intel inside."

Partly as a result of that campaign's global success--Intel's mini-jingle is still played around the world about once every 40 seconds--more and more marketers these days are investing in short sonic identities for their brands. Like Intel, some companies use them as riffs at the end of TV commercials: Think McDonald's five-note "I'm lovin' it" or the sounds from the videogame classic Super Mario Brothers, which Nintendo uses to aurally position itself as an innovator. Others are turning to experts to compose signature sound bites for everything from livening up trade-show booths to kicking off quarterly earnings calls. And with electronic gadgets emitting digital beeps and rings, even those sounds are seen as potential marketing opportunities.

Of course, anyone old enough to remember NBC's famous three-note identifier (the first melody to be trademarked) knows that short sound clips aren't new to the marketer's tool kit. But with a generation of distracted, TiVo-using, commercial-zapping consumers less willing to learn the lyrics to "I Wish I Was an Oscar Mayer Wiener," branded sound bites can cut through the clutter. They can also be repurposed for ringtones, instant-message alerts, and in-store displays, giving marketers new ways to drive purchases. According to Design Management Journal, researchers at Loyola University found in 1990 that supermarket sales rose 38.2 percent when soft, soothing music--as opposed to something fast-tempoed--was piped in. "Music is a form of mind control," explains Sean Bennett, a neuroscientist who studies music at England's University of Cambridge. "People are more likely to buy if the product is paired with sounds that elicit positive emotions."

To assist marketers in finding those good vibrations, hundreds of music agencies have cropped up in the past decade. With annual sales of $15 million, New York City-based Elias Arts composed a sonorous major chord for E-Trade that reinforces the financial services company's strong-but-friendly positioning strategy. Elias also created the Yahoo yodel, boot-up sounds for IBM's ThinkPad, and a more pleasant, harmonious whir for Germany's Rowenta vacuum cleaners. Amber Music, a London firm with offices in New York and Los Angeles, produced a memorable effect for Mercedes-Benz by transforming the Rolling Stones classic "Time Is on My Side" into an ethereal trip-hop/techno tune. Traditional agencies are also sounding off: In March, Chicago-based Leo Burnett announced an artist-in-residence program to invite established musical acts to its headquarters for inspiration.

Striking a Chord

But creating an effective sonic tag is about more than writing a catchy tune. It's a strategic challenge: To succeed, marketers have to play up a brand's attributes with exactly the right notes. Boom Sonic Branding, a music marketing shop in Toronto, has been doing just that since 1998 for clients such as Coors, Pfizer, and Samsung. Recently, Boom was hired by a company about as buttoned-down as they come: a global credit-rating agency. "They wanted to communicate the thoroughness, comfort, and expertise you'd expect from a blue-chip financial firm," says Boom's managing partner, Bill Nygren, a Canadian advertising veteran and the former lead singer of the somewhat famous 1980s Toronto pop band He Said She Said.

For that project, Boom settled on the sound of a "stamp of approval." What does that sound like? A lot of things, it turns out. Engineers at Boom mixed the familiar ka-chick of a supermarket pricing gun (the core of this sonic identity) with the clicking of two old-time adding machines (to suggest movement). On top of that, they layered the sound of someone typing on a computer keyboard (for a touch of modernity), as well as several low-end tones (for added depth and authority). Finally they tacked on a three-note (short, easy to remember) ascending major arpeggio (positive and secure). The mix of organic and inorganic sounds is the secret: "It's not necessarily important to use real sounds," explains Frank Lauraitis, Boom's production director. "Instead, you try to create a hyperrealistic mix that is instantly recognizable to the target consumer." The credit agency is currently testing the result in focus groups.

Notes of Caution

Regardless of the building blocks--music, sounds, words, or some combination--pros agree that patience is key. It takes time for a sonic tag, no matter how catchy, to sink into the collective consciousness. "You've got to stick with it for at least two years," says Ira Antelis, the musical guru at Leo Burnett who has designed sounds for Disney, Gatorade, and others. "Otherwise you're just messing with the consumer's mind."

And sonic identities don't come cheap. A one-off melody costs about $10,000, while a global sonic campaign can run well into the millions. There's also the risk of causing confusion--and even provoking anger. Cadillac's bombastic use of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" at the end of its TV commercials, while earning praise as an attempt to overhaul the brand's stodgy image, also drew criticism. "It's an overtly desperate attempt to change perceptions about the car," says Tommy Means, creative director at San Francisco-based production house Mekanism. "Instead it makes consumers think, 'Gee, Cadillac, thanks for ruining that song forever.'"

But a bigger risk may be missing the marketing potential of audio snippets. With the traditional 30-second TV spot losing favor as an efficient way to spread brand messages, advertisers will be using sonic tags to mine more promising points of consumer contact. "Cheaper chip technology means you can play the sound on retail shelves, you can embed it in the packaging--you can even put it in a car horn," says Lor Gold, chief creative officer at Chicago direct marketing agency Draft. "It's most effective where you least expect it."

You read it here first. Honk if you have Intel inside.

Who's Sounding Off?

Sources: Elias Arts; McDonald's