10. Sonic Branding: An Introduction

In this week's extract of Sonic Branding: An Introduction, Daniel describes the link between early US commercial radio sponsorships and the first signs of mass media sonic branding.

Chapter 8

Brand and its symbols

It was during the 1920s that the use of sounds as a marketing medium first came into public and corporate consciousness. The first commercial radio station, KDKA, was founded in 1920 by Frank Conrad, an employee of the Westinghouse company, a manufacturer and retailer of wirelesses. He and his employer had noticed that when they broadcast music, sales of the radio equipment they sold increased, so they applied for a license, upped the juice on the transmitter and created a new commercial medium.

Conrad's activity was quickly copied by many other new radio station owners but while Conrad succeeded, over half the stations founded over the first five years of commercial radio closed down soon after. The overriding reason was that there was no proven revenue model, outside of equipment sales and a debate raged as to how to make money from radio. Options such as a license fee, some method of subscription and encoding or philanthropy were considered and trialled with varying success. We do not have to look too hard to see many parallels between the troubled growth of radio in the 1920s and the growing pains of the internet in the late 1990s.

Programming was created and broadcast largely to sell more radio sets and the commercial drive was to create content that appealed to as wide an audience as possible. Whether stations could make money or not, the common sense approach was to try to gather as many listeners as possible.

Commercial radio was actually seen as a public service in the early days but the transparent need for revenue soon saw commercial messages starting to dominate the medium The speed with which this happened was astonishing, leading Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States but then Secretary of Commerce, to bemoan at a radio industry conference in 1992 that: '[It would be] inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertiser chatter,'

Opinions such as these did not deter the FMCG manufactures from seeking a way to use the communication power of sound to get their own messages across. They spotted an opportunity in all the people gathered, listening to the radio and in doing so gave stations programming budgets and new means of revenue generation. The way they did this was simple and enduring. They put together their own groups and paid for them to perform on the radio. The Royal Typewriter Salon Orchestra, the Lucky Strike Orchestra, Vick's Vap-o-rub Quartet, and the Cliquot Club Eskimos were all examples of this practise.

Beyond that, they started to sponsor programming and the 'soap opera' was born. These early US commercial radio sponsorships represent the first mass market use of what might very loosely be called sonic branding and helped reinforce the images of quality and heritage that the newly created names, logos and packaging conveyed.

Daniel Jackson - CEO CORD