Cannes 2019: The future of brands sounds good

The Township's Karen Howe on how Mastercard found its soul through a smart sound strategy.


The seedlings of sonic branding were quietly sown years ago. First our mobile phone reached out. Siri helped us find our way around a foreign city, told us when we needed to pack an umbrella, and located a decent sushi restaurant on demand. Then along came personal home assistants like Alexa and Google Home and we no longer needed to lift a finger for help, just our voice.

Thermostats, washing machines, cars, and dryers have caught on and joined the party, they talk to us too. Thanks to the use of sound, we are at the point where we are developing pseudo social relationships with our appliances, it’s no longer a passive relationship.

We will continue to interact with brands on a sonic level through a rapidly expanding number of customer touchpoints, we have left the passivity of television behind and traded up. But there are other significant shifts in how brands orbit our world. Smartwatches mean screens are getting smaller, and search is migrating increasingly to voice, so keyboards will become less relevant. How do brands negotiate the new terrain?

Cue the power and importance of sonic branding. And here in Cannes, smart brands like Mastercard are taking early notice.

Raja Rajamannar, the Chief marketing and communications officer of Mastercard, understood the need for the brand to find its sonic identity. His approach was to start with a melody. His brief to his agency was a challenge. The melody needed to be simple and neutral with flex. He wanted it to be memorable enough that it was hummable. It had to be as global as the brand itself, so that no matter where in the world you were, it felt native to you. It also had to be able to be interpreted to all musical genres from jazz and EDM to country and western.

Two thousand melodies later, they had their answer.

Next in the journey was a sonic signature, an identifiable edited version of the melody. This signature is deployed as a ringtone, and for on-hold messaging as well as to signal a brand transaction. So the brand has sonic consistency at all consumer touchpoints. Mindful of the frequency of the use of a credit swipe for cashiers in stores like Walmart, part of his brief was to ensure this signature did not have a fatigue factor.

On mobile phones, when a purchase is accepted, a version of the sonic signature had the added sound of coins. Other versions were created that ranged from ten seconds to six minutes, for 20 different geographies so that the brand’s touchpoints could be truly localized.

Finally, the melody was stripped back to its essential DNA to create a sonic watermark so the brand could live in different worlds. Many Mastercard users travel a great deal and culinary experiences are one of the top card uses. As a result, the sonic watermark was vocalized and then woven into unique user experiences, like one-of-a kind pop-up dining experiences.

Virtually every interaction with Mastercard is a touchpoint that is branded sonically with enough connective tissue to hold it together.

Sound is such a powerful way to connect, it’s interesting that so few brands know how to tap into it. It creates a far more immersive and unforgettable interaction. But you must plot a thoughtful course to create a powerful audio identity.

Speaking with Tom Eymundson, CEO of Pirate Toronto, he advises that effective sonic branding must start with a strategy, one that is fundamentally unique to that brand. He’s worked with such clients as Koodo, McCafé and Porter to develop their sonic DNA.

These days every marketer wants an edge, an advantage in a very tough marketplace. The smartest, sharpest brands are finding their sonic soul.

There’s good learning here for us all. Instead of just looking for brand identity, maybe it’s time we started listening for it.