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Of Sound Mind and Branding: Intro to Audio Logos

Imagine you’re sitting in your living room. You’re getting comfortable on the couch when you hear three familiar sounds:

Click-click-click-click-click WHOOSH.

No, it’s not the “Cellblock Tango” from Chicago. Let’s add some context:

Dinggggg. (You receive a text).
Click-click-click-click-click WHOOSH. (You type out a quick reply and hit send).
Ta-dummmm. (Movie time).

Chances are, you heard every sound in your head with perfect clarity on the second read-through. The “ding” of an iPhone text notification, the “click-click-click” sound emulating physical buttons while typing on a glass screen, the “whoosh” to signal your text has achieved liftoff, and, of course, the iconic “ta-dummm,” of Netflix.

Say the word “branding” and most folks think of visuals: logos, colours, typography, etc. However, branding with sound is equally as impactful. Audio branding occupies a huge part of our world. While it is often less explicit than visual branding, it’s deeply effective. In fact, a lot of the work accomplished by audio branding goes unnoticed as it lies just below the surface of our consciousness. But it works. We all recognize McDonald’s golden arches logo, but their “ba da ba ba bah” audio logo is equally as efficacious – whether it’s sung, whistled, or played on an instrument, when we hear those five short syllables, our mouths water. Just like Pavlov’s dog.

Audio branding, sometimes called an “audio” or “sound logo,” refers to those few seconds of sound that a business uses either alongside their graphic logo, as a part of their app, or for mediums like radio, video, or Spotify. The audio can be a snippet of music, a voice-over, a sound effect, or a combination of all three that is often trademarked along with the business’s graphic logo and visual brand identity.

There is no right or wrong way to design an audio logo. Audio logos can be long and extravagant, or they can be brief and simple. The 20th Century Fox introduction, for example, was specifically composed to create a sense of grandeur with traditional instruments – the drumroll and the swelling brass fanfare bring a sense of royalty.

20th Century Fox video unavailable

On the other end of the spectrum, the famous Law & Order SVU sting is short and sweet. With a long list of phonetic spellings, the “chung-chung” or “dun-dun” audio logo has an even longer list of speculations as to what the sound is made of. Multiple sources insist that the creator used a composite of different sounds including a jail door shutting and locking, a judge double-pumping a gavel, and a group of monks stamping on a floor. Whatever it’s composed of, though, we know it when we hear it. And that’s what makes it so effective.

The Intel logo is one of the most successful audio logos of all time, using a short 5-note melody, while the sound of a Macbook turning on is just one layered note. HBO took an interesting route by taking the sound of TV static – normally a grating sound that people cringe at – and softening the edges and letting it resolve in a way that it turned it into something positive.  

The options for trademarking a sound are seemingly endless. So how do designers narrow down the right tones for their brand? Dallas Taylor, the host and creator of the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast, says that people experience sound in a similar way to how they experience touch: some sounds are soft and rounded while others can be abrasive or rough. And so how a sound feels is important. There are also musical components at play, such as major/minor tones (happy or sad) or tension and resolution. Do we want a sense of urgency, like the tone you hear when you leave your Visa in a credit card terminal? Or do we want to heighten anticipation, like the Netflix ta-dum? As humans, we learn to associate tones and frequencies with certain things much as we do with colour.  

As a musician and graphic designer, I find the parallels between graphic and audio design fascinating. Regardless of the medium, the creative process starts with the same nebulous question: what mood does this create and how do people respond to it? Strong brands are made by asking this subjective question because, at the end of the day, whether it’s graphic or audio, the design needs to be both beautiful and functional. 

If you’re still not convinced that audio branding is effective, let me ask you this: can you hear this image?

Click the image to revisit this iconic, speaker-crackling sound.

— Jaecy Bells, graphic designer