The Sonic Logo

Today's extract from Sonic Branding: An Introduction focusses on the short-form version of a brand's musical identity, the sonic logo. In my many years of working in the field, I have found sonic logos to be the 'Marmite' of audio branding - you either love or hate them!

Chapter 23 - Sonic Logo

Particular reference within the guidelines must be given to how and where to use the sonic logo. The visual symbols of brands are important. Often viewed with a reverence that dictates they should be used sparingly and sympathetically. The guidelines for a sonic logo must convey the same understanding.

It is always going to be undesirable to overplay a logo, just as it is undesirable to neglect it and not play it enough to gain recognition and build associations. The guidelines, therefore, must lay out the rules for when and where the sonic logo is to be employed, as well as identifying the key applications where the sonic logo could have particular resonance.

A checklist for usage of a sonic logo on television is shown in Table 23.1 (below). The same questions and evaluations need to be made for commercial radio; Table 23.2 (also below) indicates additional points to consider here.

An area of specific interest with regard to radio, rather than TV communications is opportunities to hear (OTH). Radio tends to deliver more frequency of exposure than television, because of its relatively low media costs, so the danger of creating listener fatigue to a single sonic logo is far greater. Listener fatigue is the single greatest hazard in the usage of a sonic logo. Very high frequency of exposure will tend, in many instances, to lessen the effectiveness of any sound to draw attention. Furthermore, the ability of a sonic logo to cause audiences to switch from hearing the radio to listening directly to a brand communication will usually be diminished with overplaying.

Sonic logos will behave like any sound that is heard so often that it becomes wallpaper. Think of the person who lives next to the railway but sleeps through the night no matter how trains pass. The brain can become accustomed to sounds and learn to ignore them. Thus, the overall frequency or OTH of any sonic logo must be carefully monitored.

There is no universal truth, however, regarding effective frequency. The optimum number of exposures is not yet known but there is a common sense correlation between the musical complexity of a logo and the OTH at which listener fatigue will become an issue. The relationship is as follows: a sonic logo made up solely of a simple melody line, played on one instrument, will be very easily remembered and understood. In Europe, an example of such a sonic is the one that belongs to Direct Line, the insurance services group.


Direct Line

If you have heard it once, it is as if you have heard it a 1,000 times. It holds no mystery or complexity. It is a fairly generic ‘cavalry charge’, played with heavily synthesized brass sounds. It was created under the aegis of ad agency Davis Wilkins around 1989 in the UK, when Direct Line launched as one of the first telephone-based companies in Europe. Chris Wilkins, creative director of the agency at the time is said to have described the sonic logo as an ‘old fashioned advertising gimmick’. It is said by Andrew Ingram, now of the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) but then account planner at Davis Wilkins, that the development of a sonic logo, together with a visual counterpart, a red telephone on wheels, was encouraged by Steve Ashman, marketing manager at Direct Line, because he believed they would maximize results from audience testing of memorability, branding, communication strength and persuasive power.

In the tests, specifically the Linktm test carried out by research company Millward Brown, Ashman was proved correct. Direct Line’s launch TV commercial is said to have ‘blown the numbers off the dial’. The sight of the little red telephone driving over a hill to the rescue, accompanied by the sound of a cavalry charge played on what sounded like a telephone keypad had tremendous resonance. The launch activity ran for around six months on television and by the time follow-up activity was being planned, the red phone and the sonic logo had become a part of the TV audience’s understanding of the brand to such an extent that it was deemed impossible to drop the sonic from future advertising.

Direct Line was and remains one of the most important launches ever in the UK insurance market and it set an agenda for ‘direct’ marketing of services from the supplier to the consumer via the telephone that continues to impact countless brands in the UK. Almost every retail sector now has a number of players with ‘direct’ in their brand name as a consequence of Direct Line’s impact as a business model and as a consumer launch.

The ad campaign won the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) award for effectiveness in both generating response and building a brand at the same time. At the start of the 1990s, this was one of the holy grails of the media planning and buying industry and Direct Line became an iconic brand for those working in the industry just as it had for audiences. Creatively, too, Direct Line was aspirational to such an extent that a number of copycats hit the insurance market very quickly. Most notable of these was Admiral Insurance. It launched in 1993 with a strategy closely mirroring that of Direct Line. It had an admiral, holding a telescope to his eye, on the lookout for the best insurance quotes and he had his own sonic logo to accompany his search. Like Direct Line, the sonic logo was a single melody line, this time a sailor’s hornpipe rather than a cavalry charge. It was played on a synthesized instrument of no discernable lineage but it sounded very, very similar to the synthesized brass of the Direct Line logo. The similarities were so close that in research carried out by the sonics team at Capital Radio, there was over 70% misattribution of the Admiral sonic back to Direct Line.

It was pretty clear that the copycat sound was potentially damaging to both brands and Admiral seems to have abandoned it some time in 1998. Admiral, though, made Direct Line realize that its sonic logo was too open to being copied by other brands and, in 1998, they made some changes. The melody of its logo become more distinct — replacing the traditional, generic cavalry charge — and was made longer. The arrangement became slightly more complex, too. This allowed the new logo to become easily copyrightable as a piece of music, as a result of which it became easier for Direct Line to apply for and gain trademark status for its sonic logo. The Direct Line logo is incredibly powerful and is well respected within the organization for what it does. Jim Wallace, marketing director of the insurance company, who oversaw its regeneration and trademark registration, told us that the audio—visual logo regularly achieves astonishing results in research groups. Recognition and recall levels of over 90% are the norm, the kind of levels that only Coca-Cola and other ‘top’ brands usually achieve.

Sonicbrand’s own research tells us that people in the UK do remember the Direct Line sonic logo more than any other apart from Intel. This has a potential downside to it, however. in that the same research shows Direct Line’s sonic logo to be the most irritating around. This is not necessarily the bad news it seems. First it is only irritating because it is so memorable. Second, the ‘irritating’ sound of the logo ensures that it cuts through the background hum of advertising and grabs attention; it is most definitely distinct in the current marketplace. Third, the simplicity of the logo fits emotionally with the simplicity of the offering.

Direct Line has recognized that their logo is potentially irritating and altered the way they use it to accommodate this factor. It is not overplayed. lt is not on every ad for every product and it is sometimes used quite softly as underscore to a voiceover and only rarely given a full volume, ‘listen to me’ outing. Wallace makes the excellent point that the redesign of the logo has created a musical property that could. if the need arose. be extended into full brand scores, which would give the brand some healthy flexibility in its approach to future sonic branding.

Daniel M Jackson - CEO, CORD