Sound is part of a universal language that can convey emotion, communicate information, and help us understand how to navigate our daily lives. It can also be a powerful tool for creating brand recognition. Today's guest is Collen Fahey, U.S. Managing Director Sixieme Son, an audio branding agency exclusively dedicated to sound identity, audio branding architecture and in-store sound design. Collen explained that audio branding is not about jingles or licensing popular music. It’s the art of creating a brand¹s distinct audio identity that expresses its personality and values while managing all of the necessary customer touch points. The conversation expanded my view of using audio for branding and I hope it will inspire you as well.
Here's a taste of some of the Audio Brands that Sixième Son has created for clients around the world.
Here's the full transcript:
Welcome back to Open Source Marketer. I’m your host, Charles McKeever.
Today’s topic is audio branding.
Audio branding has become a very popular topic but is it just about jingles and licensing music? Or is it about the art of creating a brand’s distinct audio identity?
Joining us today to discuss the topic is Colleen Fahey, US Managing Director at Sixieme Son.
Sixieme Son is an audio branding agency exclusively dedicated to sound identity, audio branding architecture, and in-store sound design. The company was founded in 1995 and is the pioneer of audio branding. They’re currently Europe’s leading agency in the business.
Colleen, thank you for being here!
COLLEEN FAHEY: Thanks for inviting me! And thanks for inviting me to talk about my very favorite topic.
CHARLES: Yeah, this is fantastic!
COLLEEN: Yeah, I got into audio branding by complete happenstance. I was invited to the first audio branding congress ever held in the United States and it was just at the tail end of 2011 and I looked around this very excited room full of people talking and everybody was wearing very narrowly-cut suits and scarves around their necks and I was like, “They’re very excited. They looked very European. I don’t see any Americans here,” and so I began to realize there was something big going on in Europe that hadn’t quite arrived to the United States.
When I went to the speeches, I was just blown away because the idea had never occurred to me and I’ve been in marketing for over twenty years. I’ve talked about marketing around the world. I give speeches on marketing. I had never thought about the idea that you need to manage your audio with the same care as your visual identity.
CHARLES: Well, I’m glad you say that because I think that we all understand that audio is very powerful. I know we hear it in commercials and TV and film. But, you know, just like you just said, I’m not sure that all of us understand exactly how it all works. So, if you would, just take a moment then to educate us on what is audio branding and how is it commonly used?
COLLEEN: Well, with Sixieme Son, what you do when you create an audio brand is exactly the same as when you’re taking a look at your visual identity. You’re creating a set of tools but they’re auditory. So, instead of your logo typeface colors, you are creating your temple instrumentation – melody, rhythms, harmony – that will be like your audio style guide.
And then, from there, everything that you do comes from it – whether it’s training videos for your people, whether it’s an event in a store, whether it’s a big expo, whether it’s an ad, whether it’s an app or a YouTube video. They all begin to speak the same language. It’s not repetitive like a jingle. It’s not, like, over and over and over and you sing the same thing. You have an audio universe. And then, after a while, people begin to recognize you when they walk by a booth at a conference or they recognize you in many ways.
So, the important thing you have to think about when you’re doing audio branding is, first, what do I stand for? What are my values? What’s my personality? How do I stand apart from my competitors?
Yes? Do you want to add something?
CHARLES: Oh, I was just going to say, is that something that’s custom-created or is that something that you can draw from other existing assets and leverage? How does that work?
COLLEEN: Well, in our world, it’s custom-created. Your brand is unique and you need to describe your brand in a way that is consistent with its meaning, and it would be not impossible to find a song out there that maybe did it, but then it’s somebody else’s song and the song probably gets more benefit than the brand when you do that. No, we really create it from the ground up.
We look at the competitive set. We listen to the music that they use. We look at the heritage – musically and sound-wise – of the brand. Then, we talk a lot about what the brand stands for. So, you might stand for energy and innovation and leadership; you might stand for warmth and hospitality and community support; you might stand for eclecticism and surprise or effervescence. And brands are not super simple so they often are a combination of things.
So, then we go out and we do use music that’s already out in the world to create mood boards. So, you might say, “Okay. Listen to this song. You want to say that you’re a leader. Here’s one way to say you’re a leader.” Maybe it has big bass drums in it. “Oh, my god, no, that’s not the kind of leader we are. We are much more thoughtful and empathetic.” “Okay. Listen to this way being a leader.” Maybe the rhythm is very straight ahead but it’s carried on a bass or something. “Oh, okay. Now that feels more like it – the leader we are.” Then, we have that to say to the creatives, “Okay. This is the kind of musical vocabulary that you might want to consider composing.” You have the same thing in many ways. Do you want people’s voices? Do you want hand claps?
We were doing one with somebody who was trying to say warmth and hospitality, and we had shown them something that was very sweet and whistled and they loved it and they all started smiling, and then they said, “No, no, no, that’s not us. That’s more beach-y and we want people to know we wear shoes.” So, then we killed that one and we went to another one.
So, what we do is work from words into sounds, and then, using both words and sounds, we give the assignment to composers and sound designers, and then they create an audio DNA for the brand. And that audio DNA serves as a style guide – pretty much the way a style guide does for your visual brand guidelines.
CHARLES: So, is that something then that you involve the visual designers?
COLLEEN: Sometimes the visual designers are very involved. In fact, we often are looking at what decisions they made because it helps you really understand the brand. Like, why did you make big blocky letters for your logo? What’s the blue stand for? You know, there’s little dots in here – are those little dots something that’s supposed to be scientific or is it a lot of people coming together? Because it really does help understand the brand. Of course, the client also can help us with that.
COLLEEN: In fact, right now we’re working with a visual design firm – exactly right now – and they have a logo that has told us a lot of the story. It’s been very helpful.
CHARLES: It sounds like that makes a lot of sense because it seems like some businesses come into an awareness of what they need to do and then they try to implement different pieces and the message is inconsistent. So, having all that together and integrated sounds like it would definitely be a benefit.
COLLEEN: Yeah, it is, and you should see that when the magic really happens is when the audio is working with the visual logo. So, when the visual logo animates on and it’s supported by the audio, the meaning is just so strong. You can really feel that there’s more. They amplify each other.
So, once you have your audio DNA, then the main piece of it is the audio logo which is a little bit of a motif that runs through the DNA usually, and the audio logo goes with the visual logo as we just talked about. But then, you begin to adapt.
So, if you are having your audio is going to be before an announcement at a train station, you might want to be calming because you don’t want people who are nervous about catching a train or losing their luggage, you want them to feel calm in a calm state of mind, whereas maybe, if it’s at your travel ticket office, you might want to make it anticipatory and lively. But it would still come from the same DNA. Well, that’s how we work.
CHARLES: Okay. That’s interesting.
So far, you’ve kind of mentioned things that are B2C. Does this work for B2B as well?
COLLEEN: For Sixieme Son, about half of our clients are B2B and one of the reasons it’s so good for B2B is because they have less money and they need to manage it very, very carefully. So, if every single touchpoint is being leveraged to create the same brand personality or to help people understand their brand personality and meaning, it is very helpful to the B2B brand. One of our newest clients that we finished working with is an atomic energy company – the world’s largest – Areva. B2B companies now use apps. They use videos on YouTube. They use instructional videos. So, nobody is away from the need to have music that helps define their brand.
CHARLES: Okay. Well, let’s talk about touchpoints then because, you know, there’s internet, of course, there’s TV, television, radio, there’s all these different mediums. So, what should businesses be exploring today and what kind of strategies should they be invoking?
COLLEEN: Well, audio branding is deep. It’s not about any given touchpoint. It’s just that, today, since the 2000s have begun, every new touchpoint is audio-enabled. So, you’re not picking up a newspaper and reading a page quietly. You are on a pad or you might be on a phone – it’s audio-enabled. If you want to click through to a film, there’s a film – that could have music. The app opening could be part of your sound. Everybody uses sales videos – everybody – and that, you know, you shouldn’t just go get cheap music that’s needle drop. You really should have your own brand underscored in those things.
But then, there’s also booths at the convention centers. That’s one of the biggest places that we have had clients asking for it. And then, speeches and conferences that you make, what’s the walk-in music make you feel like? What happens when you rise to the stage? You’re going to make a big product announcement. How are you going to make people feel like emotion behind this product that you’ve put two years of work into? What do you want them to feel as they walk out? All of that can be helped with music and it’s better that it be your music and not just Chariots of Fire, you know, which everybody has already used and maybe makes you jump up out of your seat, but you’d rather have them jump out of their seat for your music.
CHARLES: So, it’s not just about having a sound clip that you can insert here to check a box that you’ve done it. It’s more about creating a user experience overall.
COLLEEN: It’s about creating an experience. That is the idea behind audio branding and almost any branding, right? It’s to bring people into your universe and help them create an experience, and audio has an advantage in that it’s very emotional as well as very communicative.
CHARLES: Online there’s always been this, well, you know, it used to be that there was this sense that, when somebody included audio, you needed a way to turn it off or it wasn’t always necessarily appreciated because you might be at work or things like that. Is audio branding treated differently online than it is offline?
COLLEEN: I mean, online, you probably should be empathetic to the user situation and I don’t think that most people would like a blaring piece of music to come up when a site was open. But you have videos that people click to and watch online, and you do have the ability to offer audio and ask if people want to raise the volume. So, I’m not a big advocate of having a booming sound come out of your site immediately, but there’s many ways that you still use audio on a site – instructional videos, you know, there’s a lot of ways.
CHARLES: I was just about to ask that. With so many different, you know, so much demand for a customer’s attention, how can brands stand out? What’s the one thing right now that’s really getting great results?
COLLEEN: The one thing that’s getting great results is audio breaking through the limited attention span that everybody has. So, when you’re watching television, you’re often not even looking at the television anymore. You’re looking down at a computer. So, if somebody’s visual logo goes by, they’ll never see it. But, if you’re looking down, you can hear the audio because you can close your eyes – you can avert your eyes – but you can’t really close your ears without a lot of work.
I think you might have heard about Linda Stone’s writing about continual partial attention – that everybody’s paying continual partial attention. So, you need every tool you can get to break through this, and one of the ways to do is through using a different sense that people aren’t as aware of and can communicate.
CHARLES: You know, that makes a lot of sense because, even if you’re in a different room – and I know that there’s been times when I want to show somebody something like a commercial or whatever and – I know when that sound comes on, I can identify it from a whole different room and I can say, “Hey! Quick! Come here! Come here! Watch this thing!”
COLLEEN: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. The same thing happens in physical environments. Suddenly, you pick up something you hear that draws your attention and it’s not subliminal but it can just draw your attention without really raising your left brain’s blockades.
CHARLES: All right. Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. There are so many instances where we kind of shut down on certain media. When somebody’s trying to get attention, we’re like, “Oh, no!” especially things like banner ads online and things like that where they’re visual and they want to pop up in your face but you want to block them out because you don’t want to be advertised to.
Now, that’s great. So, give us an example, if you would, of some of the key brands that are using audio branding.
COLLEEN: Well, if you wouldn’t mind, I have a little presentation that shows some of our clients and some of our thoughts and I could do it that way by using some examples.
CHARLES: That’d be great.
COLLEEN: Is that okay?
CHARLES: All right.
COLLEEN: Okay. Let’s do that.
So, some of the brands, probably the oldest and best known audio brand in the United States was actually created by an Austrian and it’s the Intel.
CHARLES: All right.
CHARLES: Go ahead and, if you would, expand the presentation there. We’re not really seeing it.
COLLEEN: Okay. There you go.
CHARLES: There we go. That looks great.
COLLEEN: Okay. So, I invite you to hear the brand. Unfortunately, I am not going to play the music because it’s sounding a little tinny over the box, over the connection, but I would like to just say that audio branding is not about creating jingles or licensing music tracks – though that can be a small part of it. It’s about finding your voice – about finding your audio DNA – and, these days, you have so many touchpoints – so many and all are audio-enabled.
So, you have YouTube videos and on-hold music which is a very important part of our business and a very wonderful way to talk to customers while they’re waiting. You have product sounds. You have opportunities to make sounds at retail. You have ringtones, sampling, apps. But often, these days, instead of having your two or three agencies that you used to have, you have, like, nine, ten, twelve agencies if you’re a client, and there’s very few clients in the United States who are managing their audio universe. So, somebody’s licensing Vivaldi for your on-hold music, and someone else is using hard rock in some kind of an employee video, and someone else is using – I don’t know – independent music.
Sorry. Let me go back. You have eight, nine, ten agencies and they’re all licensing different music – needle drop, 80s, things that they used to like, things their girlfriends like – and you don’t end up having a brand. But, if you have an audio brand, you can manage them with an audio DNA and you can have them all relate to each other.
So, I like to use this slide just to sort of show that there’s a central repository of sound. But then, you can compose different music for different things. For instance, your video news releases that your PR agency is putting out. Often, they’re not thinking about branded music at all. They’re just picking up music from, you know, a site that sells or rents music. So, you want to manage your audio universe.
Here’s four ideas that I like to talk about.
One is that music is a language that’s universally understood. Just as colors, shapes, typefaces convey meaning, so do rhythms, harmonies, melodies, instrumentation, texture, and it transcends language. If you have a global brand, it’s really important to think about using music. It also transcends socio-economics. It also works for people who are illiterate. So, if you have a brand whose population is either a child or is somebody who doesn’t read easily, you should consider using your music to be a language for you.
Another one is that music has been proven to move behavior. There is a lovely in-store study that was done in Scotland that had French wine and German wine side-by-side, same prices, and one day they’d play German music and one day they’d play French music and then they’d play German then they’d play French. And each time that the music changed, German wines would go up on the days that German music was playing and French wine sales would be higher on the days that the French music was playing. People were almost completely unaware. There were 85 percent of the people in exit interviews had been unaware that there was music playing at all. So, in this case, I would say the country is the brand and the influence of music was because of the country’s music.
CHARLES: That’s incredible.
COLLEEN: Yeah, really. It’s one of my favorite studies. There aren’t too many studies about this, but I search them out and there’s a new one that has just come out that says that the visual cortex processes sound and that made me think of another piece of research that I heard that said that if you looked at pictures and you heard a coherent sound like, let’s say you looked at pictures of ducks, horses, cows, pigs, if you heard “moo,” you’d see the cow faster. And then, another study came out recently that said that sound helps you see something faster because the visual cortex actually processes sound as well as other parts of the brain.
So, if you hear a motorcycle coming toward you, you’re primed to see a motorcycle. If you hear a motorcycle coming toward you and you look up and what you see is a horse, you’re not primed for it.
CHARLES: I could see that because it seems like, you know, I always think of our brain as a computer and, as we’re trying to sift through like a search engine and trying to figure out what we’re looking at, if we have another piece of information to go along with that, we can kind of jump to exactly where we need to be. So, you know, that’s not a person – that’s an animal. It’s not a dog, it’s a cow. You know, that kind of thing.
COLLEEN: Yeah. But who’d have thought that the visual cortex knows how to hear, you know? That was the part that sort of blew my mind but felt right at the same time. But you can also see how that might relate to audio branding.
If it helps you see something faster, then you have an advantage on a shelf or in a website among other products. So, that’s why I think it’s interesting to consider. You know, this is all early. There’s not a lot of studies done on audio branding yet but there are enough to give plenty of indications that it works very well.
So, this is my final conclusion. If you have a visual brand, you should also have an audio brand because every new touchpoint is audio-enabled, but many US marketers are pretending we’re still turning pages and not dealing with audio with the same care as they are with visual.
So, that’s the box of clients.
I’m sorry. Did I interrupt you?
CHARLES: No, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
COLLEEN: So, there are some of Sixieme Son’s clients. We do Michelin and Samsung and AXA and just have been working with the City of Atlanta on their audio brand. In fact, some of the examples I used about the mood boards were about Atlanta. We’re working on our product introduction with AstraZeneca. We have done the music for Royal Air Maroc which is beautiful. It was sort of an unbranded, any-day airline and now it seems so luxurious and so majestic and it really was helped by its audio brand.
I’m so sad I can’t play the music, but I know you said that you would put this up.
CHARLES: Yeah, we’ll definitely embed it in the blog post because you previewed it for me and, of course, I’m okay with viewing it through this medium, but we definitely want to present it in the best light possible so, yeah, I’ll definitely put it up on the website, that way people can listen to it in all of its beauty.
COLLEEN: Okay. So, then I will just tell you that the Michelin brand embodies the values of innovation, modernity, distinctiveness, mobility, and pleasure. And I can’t play it for you but you’ll hear it later. This was a corporate global event film and you can see when you listen to it that the music is going to be the same world but not exactly the same tune until the end.
In Michelin’s case, we have results because there was music in these wonderful commercials and then it was replaced by audio branded music that was scored to the commercials. What happened was the commercials in the US and around the world were better understood, and then the company was seen as more innovative, more friendly, more drivable, and more leader-like because we’d built that into the audio brand and it became an important part of the brand overall.
So, we do the corporate videos, we do instructional videos, we do on-hold music for these people.
We’ve just finished, one year ago, Peugeot. Their goal was to move up-market and infuse emotion into their brand. They were particularly interested in being these impeccable standards, pleasure of driving, the stylish, elegant, and they’re going into a lot of new markets so it was important to them to start moving up the scale of being a more high-end brand and seen as a luxury brand.
So, you can see that we created a lot of different kinds of music for them and we’ve just gotten test results. We have seen in these test results that Peugeot is leading some competitors that we tested against in agreeable to hear, captivating, modern, upscale, emotional. And the competitors were leading in ordinary, boring, irritating, and unusual. And we’re tied in original.
In the markets that were newer, where the brand doesn’t have a standing yet, we even got higher scores on high standards and good technology, partly because it’s a green field. It’s a clean slate, you know?
So, this is what the test results said that the audio identity said about the brand. It said it was stylish, it said it was modern, it had personality, it had emotion, and it had strength. You can see that this is China, Brazil, UK, France, and Spain. So, that underscores the idea of being a universal language.
CHARLES: Yeah, it transcends all cultures and language barriers and things like that.
COLLEEN: Latin American, Asian. So, that’s one of the things, that music transcends borders so easily. You know, Psy’s two billion hits. It’s so easy to send music around the world and movies have helped create a language that people tend to understand everywhere.
Okay. This is a playful, light, simple brand. I think I’m just going to hop through since I’m not going to play music for you. It doesn’t seem fair. You can just see that those are some of the brands. MACSF, by the way, is an insurance company for health care professionals, very B2B.
So, you can start, sometimes people start because they have a big event coming up. Sometimes they start because they want to create a global music library for people all around the world to pick music that all relates to the brand and then they only have to license it once and everybody gets it and can work with it. Sometimes it’s a TV campaign that starts. Sometimes it’s a big sales push. So, those are ways to use audio branding.
Just a quick thing on Sixieme Son. It’s almost having its twentieth birthday and it only is dedicated to audio identity. That’s all we do. We don’t do anything for musicians or movies or TV shows. We are a branding agency, first and foremost, but the only tool we work with is sound. And so, that requires that we have a consulting and strategic group. We have creators who are composers and sound designers. And then, we have people who are marketers and project managers.
CHARLES: That’s fantastic. So, then when I come to you to create a brand using audio, then there’s a team to take me through the process, is that what I hear?
COLLEEN: Oh, yes. There is a process – that’s one thing – and there’s a team that really knows its part in the process. It’s a very strong team, works very well together, and will certainly never give you fewer than three different options to choose from that emphasize maybe different parts even though they’ll all come from the same main values, but maybe you’ll want to hear, “I want to hear a warmer tone. I want to hear a more futuristic tone,” you know.
So, you’ll always have more than one composer working on it. And it’s basically the basic branding process where you’re analyzing your competitors, your own heritage, your aspirations, then creating mood boards, then creating the creative DNA, and then doing the adaptations and implementing them. And you get an audio style guide which is an important thing for your life.
If you don’t have an audio style guide, you should be thinking about that because that’s one of the ways to keep your brand coherent.
So, here’s just an example of what an adaptation might be. It would be a meetings and events sound package where you’d get your background music so, as people come in or your awkward conversation and things and you’re trying to set them up and get them ready for what they’re going to hear and then opening music which is usually sort of levitating, and closing music that helps bring them back to the things that excited them during the presentations, and then a few other things. So, that’s a typical adaptation of an audio brand that you might ask for and get.
CHARLES: So, just to go back to that for just a moment. Do I understand that then that you have maybe the audio piece as a whole, but then you’re saying maybe you can break that up into separate pieces and still keep the continuity?
COLLEEN: You compose different pieces coming off of your audio brand and then you always have it.
COLLEEN: So, the background music when people are coming in is not so lively and dynamic.
COLLEEN: It puts them in a happy place but it’s not shocking them into it. Maybe playing a little bit of the motif through so their ears are prepared for the big opening or the CEO is about to walk up to the stage and announce something.
CHARLES: But the main point being that it plays off of the original concept or original audio DNA so you’re not creating a whole separate thing.
COLLEEN: Audio DNA.
CHARLES: Yeah. Okay.
COLLEEN: So, you’re always interpreting the audio DNA into the brand. If you want to get people really revved up and really excited, you’ll do a version of your audio DNA that’s not completely different but it’s got a lot of energy. And then, you can also do a very calm version. Maybe you want to talk about patience and the problems that they’re having and why your drug is going to help them, then you’re going to do it in a much more sort of easy-going and quiet way. So, once you have your DNA, it begins to be interpretable and, pretty soon, you have a library of music that you can use for many occasions.
CHARLES: Makes sense. Okay
And then, I just want to say, who needs audio branding most? Well, pretty much anybody who has a brand. But highly competitive categories, I think it’s a tool that you want to have in your toolkit and you might get there before other people. If you’re a global brand, you may be competing with people who already have audio brands, but we talked about the fact that it transcends literacy, socio-economics, and it’s a true language that people understand. An emotional product, you can really heighten the correct emotions and infuse meaning. When there’s multiple touchpoints, you can use an audio brand to tie them together. And, if you’re doing a brand refresh, it is a great way to add a layer of meaning and get people to understand what you’re saying about your brand faster.
So, that’s all I have to say today about this unless you have more questions.
COLLEEN: So, I’ll leave you with my question which is, “Can people identify your brand with their eyes closed?”
CHARLES: Very nice. Yeah, close your eyes.
Well, thank you very much, Colleen. I appreciate it.
CHARLES: We’ve got a little bit of feedback going on but that’s great information.
Where should someone go if they want to get started?
COLLEEN: They could go to SixiemeSon.com but they could also just call or write me, Colleen Fahey, 312.451.7150 or [email protected] sixiemeson.com and I’ll spell that – S-I-X-I-E-M-E-S-O-N.com.
CHARLES: Excellent, and we’ll put a link in the show notes as well.
COLLEEN: That would be very helpful because your name is easier to spell than mine.
CHARLES: Well, thank you very much, Colleen.