Nokia - 'The Sound of Market Share'

Today's extract of HIT BRANDS tells the story of how Nokia came to develop one of the most recognised sounds on the planet.

Around the world the Nokia ringtone is heard nearly 1 billion times per day. This tune was introduced onto Nokia handsets for the first time in 1994 and is still present today as each Nokia phone's default ringtone. One may argue that the figure of 1 billion has simply been plucked out of thin air to drum up excitement and further aid brand recognition. Tapio Hakanen, Head of Sound and Visual Content, has developed a simple formula for validating this figure using the brand's consumer research data:

  1. Currently there are 1.3 billion people using a Nokia handset.
  2. On average a person's mobile phone rings seven times per day.
  3. Research shows that approximately 10 percent of people with Nokia handsets do not change their ringtone post-purchase and continue with the default setting.

(10% of 1.3 billion) x 7 = 910 million

OK, so it isn't quite 1 billion times per day, but this figure ranks the Nokia ringtone as one of the most heard sounds on the planet.

Unbeknown to most, the Nokia ringtone is actually a short phrase taken from a track named 'Gran Vals' by Spanish guitar player Francisco Tarrega. It was this track that was used to accompany Nokia's first television commercial in 1993 and was used consistently across all brand communications for the next year. In choosing this track for its first above-the-line campaign, Nokia made the conscious decision to try and move away from its competitors. At that time, most technology companies were exhibiting a sound that Tapio Hakanen accurately and somewhat amusingly described as 'Feel-Good Business Rock'. From its inception, Nokia has prided itself on being a brand for and of the people. To further demonstrate this, the tagline both seen and heard in many Nokia brand communications over time has been 'Nokia - Connecting People' (see Figure 4). It was for this reason that 'Grand Vals', a human-sounding track played on acoustic guitar, was selected for the campaign in 1993.

From where we are now, Nokia seems to have been a fair distance ahead of the curve in its efforts to appear and sound more human. Modern-day campaigns for technology brands are visually hi-tech and crowded with as many aesthetically pleasing images of enhanced equipment as possible. More often than not, however, they are accompanied by what is an extremely and increasingly familiar human sound.

Possibly the most obvious example of this is Apple's use of music and sound on their communications. Without using the same piece of music across various campaigns or the creation of a mnemonic that is used consistently, the brand has developed a 'house style'. Despite Apple's clear technical prowess, this house style generally does not reflect this and, instead, an acoustic and folk sound convey­ing very human characteristics is exhibited. If the visual elements of the brand are purposely constructed and marketed to convince us of the brand's technical superiority, Apple's use of the Chilly Gonzalez track 'Never Stop' (among others) is a clear example of its desire to maintain a close relationship with its fans, consumers and people in general.

The adoption of this more human sound by technology brands may never have occurred if Nokia had not used Francisco Tarrega's track in their advertising. More crucial, however, to the immediate popularity of this track was its inclusion on the handsets themselves. Today, the ability of a device to play music and sound of the highest quality is imperative. It is quite hard to fathom that it was not until the beginning of the 1990s that this technology was created, with Nokia being the first handset manufacturer to experiment with its functionality.

The first version of the Nokia tune in a handset was a monophonic 'buzzer tone: Nokia then began experimenting with the idea of poly­phonic handsets. When it was clear that these initial developments would change the future relationship between mobile handsets and sound, Nokia dedicated time, energy and expertise to this quest for innovation. The man behind this technology was Thomas Dolby. Born Thomas Robertson, he adopted the stage name of Thomas Dolby after being given it as a nickname by friends in his teenage years. Robertson was never too far away keyboards and tapes, most of which came from the Dolby Laboratories. His friends picked up on his fascination with these tools and quickly began to call him 'Dolby'. Dolby followed his passion for music and began releasing pop records incorporating electronic instrumentation in the early 1980s. Though he never had many hits, Dolby became one of the most recognizable figures of the synth pop movement of early 80s new wave.

Dolby says "It was the beginning of the 90s I was getting pretty jaded with the music business... so I went to Silicon Valley, which was very exciting, and for the first time computer companies were starting to take music seriously"

It was at the beginning of this journey in California where Dolby set up a company that created 'polyphonic' virtual synthesizers. This software not only allowed devices to play musical notes, but more importantly possessed the ability to produce multiple sounds simultaneously. The Nokia tune was already famous from its appearance in advertisements in the form of an audio logo. Dolby's initial engagement with the brand was to work on an updated version of this tune in order to produce an updated polyphonic ringtone version.

Soon after the millennium, this feat was achieved, and a polyphonic version of the 1902 track 'Grand Vais' by Spanish classical musician Francisco Tarrega appeared on Nokia devices as the default ringtone. Dolby's synthesizer was a phenomenal invention, ahead of its time, that transformed the relation between technology and audio forever. His synthesizer (which has undergone constant develop­ment since its first use) has been adapted to fit almost any piece of technology and could almost be termed the world's most purchased musical instrument. The presence and familiarity of the Nokia ringtone in modern life could have been very different, however, if Nokia had not been ahead of the curve.

Nokia has always placed great importance on the sound exhibited by its brand, which is evidenced by the decade-long presence of a spe­cifically designated sound team at the brand's headquarters. This team is responsible for the overall sound of the brand, and Tapio Hakanen breaks it down into three simple sectors:

  1. All device sounds, including ringtones, applications, pre­ loaded music, user interface sounds and the phone's camera.
  2. Marketing and communications.
  3. Events - most recently Nokia World and the Mobile Congress.

The world of brands is an extremely noisy place. The majority of the sound, however, is not functional or at times even intentional. Technology brands, and in particular the brands among these that have developed mobile handsets, have been extremely sensible in intentionally producing and implementing functional sounds in their devices. As with the Apple 'swoosh', when a sound accompanies an aesthetic, it helps the user to identify that an action has been completed so that they can move on to the next part of the user journey.

Each time a new handset is released, new sounds are featured in order to satisfy a specific function and/or action. Not all audio is new, however, with Nokia keen to add a sense of continuity to the sound experience during the customer journey. Nokia pays attention to considerable feedback collated from previous handsets and builds on this in its delivery of newly released material. The most effective of these can be seen when the aesthetic of the sound is in sync with its functionality. Apple's choice of a 'swoosh' rather than a generic beep or bong confirms to the user that not only has their email been sent, but that this action has been done swiftly.

Likewise, Nokia has paid a great deal of attention to ensure that the sounds and music present on their devices not only hold a func­tion in line with its aesthetic, but also effectively complement the additional aspects of the phone. These additional aspects can again be split into three equally important sectors. The Nokia sound department will work along­side these three core teams to ensure that the sounds created are in line with the product and the brand itself. The relationship and continued teamwork between these departments play an extremely influential role in the final sound and music that will be heard on Nokia devices, through marketing, communications and at Nokia events.

The Three Teams

1. Industrial design

This team will be questioned by the sound department about what is currently driving their work. For example, in 2011 the design principles of all Nokia devices were based around the idea of 'reduction'. The design of the phone was about simplicity. Detailed information around the design of the future product provides those entrusted with the sound of the device with the inspiration and knowledge to create the correct sounds to match.

2. Brand team

At the heart of a brand's marketing and communications is the 'positioning' of the brand. What is the essence of the brand? What are its key characteristics? What is the brand promising to deliver to its consumers at that particular time on that particular touchpoint? Sound and music have an immense power to move people emotionally. Any music or sound used across any touch point should align with the over­ all goals of the brand and create an immersive and rewarding user experience. In order to achieve the ultimate effect, the selected sound should work coherently with the visuals, func­tion and/or atmosphere, creating a seamless link between the two. It is for these reasons that the Nokia sound team fully immerse themselves in the overall positioning of the brand before embarking on the creation of any sound elements.

3. Digital user experience team

As previously mentioned, the best device sounds are the ones where the aesthetic is in line with its specific function. Revised formats of the user experience come in waves as and when relevant. These updates could include advances in: device start-up and shut-down, messaging, calendar, alarms and applications. The sound team must be fully educated in the recent developments in order to identify the perfect sound to match the new and improved format, as can be easily seen when comparing the sounds exhibited by functions on Nokia phones in 2005 with the sounds of the most recent device. The contemporary versions of the sound accompanying these functions are far less complicated and are in keeping with the modern, reduced visual style of the handset and operating system.

Nokia's first phone was launched in 1984 weighing in at a little over 11 pounds. It was revolutionary for its time. In 2005 the company introduced its first line of multimedia smartphones and in 2011 introduced the first Microsoft Windows phone handsets when the Nokia Lumia range was released on the market. With a new partnership, and the operating system reverting to that of Microsoft, how would this affect the visual and sound ele­ments of the Nokia handsets?

Tapio Hakanen explained that it would only further enhance the position of the sound team at Nokia. He said: "Now everything is run on Windows, the audio identity is even more important". He went on to explain that this relationship was made significantly easier by the fact that Microsoft's approach to sound is very similar to that of Nokia's. Not only are the two global giants extremely close in terms of their approach, but they are also not worlds apart in their sense of style and views on aesthetics.

Simplicity, purity and humanity play a key role in the design of both visual and sound elements for Nokia - Microsoft adopts the same stance. In the technology industry, there are developments made not only every day but every minute. For a brand to have a presence as long and as successful as Nokia's it must have been doing something right. Since 1984 the Nokia handset has changed dramatically almost year on year. Crucially two elements have remained throughout - the brand's name and its audio identity.

Audio branding can be developed, understood and appreciated by consumers fairly easily. There are three ways in which any brand can formulate a successful audio identity- Nokia has followed this route extremely closely and has ultimately realized its benefits. Nokia was early to identify that the use of a consistent sound that was in line with the brand's overall positioning and identity would be a strong asset for them. Not surprisingly, they stuck with it! In using the techniques below, the brand has managed to create one of the most famous pieces of music ever to be associated with a brand.

The three key techniques the brand operated in order to create a successful audio identity are as follows:

Frequency - this relates to how often one can hear this sound. Incorporating the music from their advertising into their devices as a ringtone and later on as a start-up sound ensured that the Nokia sound would be heard frequently. Simply put, consistency over terri­tory and touchpoint.

Recency - in order to remain in the mind of listeners, a brand should ensure that its sonic identity is used consistently over not only ter­ritory and touchpoint but also time. Recognition and familiarity are key to creating a sonic identity for a brand. Nokia has achieved this by sticking with the same core melody as the original theme tune.

Relevancy - the world of branded sounds is extremely busy. In order to stick in the mind of the consumer, a brand's sonic identity must not only be distinctive but also match the product it is accompanying. The sonic identity of a brand must be flexible enough so it can be adapted over time to keep pace with developments in technology and soci­ety. Nokia has adapted the original melody on numerous occasions in order to work alongside new handsets and marketing campaigns.

The Nokia ringtone was first implemented on the Nokia 2110 in 1994 and has now been modified eight times in order to keep pace with developments in other areas of the brand and the handset. The latest version can be heard on Nokia's 2011 N9 handset. Creative develop­ment does not stop at Nokia. Another new version of the Nokia Tune will be launched alongside the 2013 range of Nokia's Windows phones. Since the emergence of BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone, Nokia sales have taken a hit. Their sales team always has one sure-fire way of identifying whether those around them have Nokias. It is an inside joke at Nokia that sales data is often collected by the team when landing by airplane. How do they know how many people on the plane are in possession of a Nokia handset? Because they hear the short phrase taken from Francisco Tarrega's 'Grand Vals' when impatient passengers switch on their mobile phones as soon as the aircraft hits the ground - or, as Nokia employees refer to it, 'The Sound of Market Share'.

Daniel M Jackson - CEO, CORD and David Marcus, Managing Director, CORD