Defining the sound of 11:FS
Audio branding may sound silly to those not in marketing. Until you realise it isn’t an emerging tech ‘futurist’ hack - it’s a branding pillar as old as the logo or strapline. 11:FS CMO Eric Fulwiler and Audio Engineer Alex Woodhouse give us the lowdown.
Why audio branding matters in 2020
Any brand that has a consistent sound when you hear it has a sonic brand. Jingles are audio branding. Quick snippets of sound that accompany an intro or outro are audio branding. Some of the biggest brands in the world use audio branding all the time – Netflix (the quick sound and logo that plays before any Netflix film/show), Intel (“Intel inside”), McDonald's (“I’m Lovin' It”), or Coca Cola (the sound of a bottle being opened).
Hearing is an important part of the brand experience (especially for a brand with multiple podcasts!), even if we don’t think about it consciously and logically. It helps shape the perception of the user/listener towards the brand and company. If you don’t have an audio brand, you’re missing out on an entire sense to connect with your customers and audience.
There’s an excellent piece here from the team at Wired of the psychology behind some of the most recognisable sounds including THX and the Window 95 startup sound created by Brian Eno.
Audio branding is particularly important now, as we enter into the world of voice-led interfaces. You may not realise it, but voice is slowly eating the software and hardware world. Amazon Alexa and Google Home get most of the attention and headlines, but each of us have a ‘voice device’ in our pockets with our iPhones and Androids. And eventually all our home, work, life technology will be wired for voice (refrigerators, alarm systems, cars, etc).
Technological progress only flows in one direction – towards the things that are faster and/or cheaper and/or bring more value. Voice is that
The reason for this is not just that it’s cool – it’s that voice as interface has less friction than touch. Think about the inefficiency of having to think of something then type it into a keyboard as opposed to just thinking about something and saying something.
Yes, the technology has to catch-up to the opportunity (we’ve all lost our sh*t at Alexa once or twice…) but it will. Just like it did with mobile, the PC, the landline phone, the fax machine, and any technology before it. The first iterations always have inefficiencies and limitations that seem silly and minuscule in the future (remember typing text messages on phone keypads?).
Any interface that can be done with voice instead of touch will. Maybe not now, maybe not next year, but eventually it will. Because technological progress only flows in one direction – towards the things that are faster and/or cheaper and/or bring more value. Voice is that.
How we approached creating our audio brand
So why would we care? Given the volume of audio and video content the Media team produces it makes a lot of sense to examine how audio branding would work and complement this content within the wider brand communication framework.
And in a voice-first world, you better be thinking about how to build a voice-first brand. Which is why we kicked off a project a couple months back to define the sound of 11:FS and develop an audio logo to include in everything we do that has an audio element - just like you would a traditional logo in anything that has a visual element.
In typical 11:FS style we decided to get starting by getting started and define a minimum loveable product (MLP). That began with researching what was already in the market and how other firms approached the problem as well as how to actual compose the ident.
During this phase we unearthed a gem about the classic ‘SEGA’ chant at the start of Sonic the Hedgehog - it took up 1/8th of the game cartridge capacity. When they launched the Mega Drive (or SEGA Genesis if you're reading this across the pond), they programmed the introductory chant to prove it had better sound quality and was more powerful than Nintendo’s rival SNES console.
Some claim this meant they cut parts of the game to make it happen, other sources that the cartridge had space after they refined the game. Either way that introduced an entire generation to audio branding and we’ve not looked back.
Our research also led us to examine how various agencies have audited other corporate entities properties. In those processes they’ve found thousands of touchpoints, employing musicologists who reviewed the audio and whether it was in a major or minor key. That gave us a fascinating insight into just how seriously organisations were taking audio branding even if that exercise was perhaps too in-depth for where we are today.
It was more a case of get started getting started. That meant thinking about the different types of audio branding and how that fits into our work:
- Theme music: "I'm Lovin' It"
- Sonic logo: Intel or THX
- Skeuomorphism: the design concept of making sounds resemble their real-world counterpart, e.g. the macOS trash sound
- Organic audio: e.g. a dial-up tone
- Semiotic: e.g. iPhone send and receive sound
- Celebrity endorsement/composition: e.g. Justin Timberlake working "I'm Lovin' It" into a song.
The 11:FS audio brand
From there, it became a question of, if 11:FS sounded like something, what would it be? What do people already associate us with, whether that’s the musical styles we’ve used in videos or within shows?
We condensed that down to three factors:
- Hip-hop: thanks in no small part to our Group CEO’s love of old school hip hop.
- Turning it up to 11: because that’s what we do as a disruptor in our industry.
- Impact: our musical choices and even the themes for our podcast properties are always attention grabbing and and affirm our content has an impact.
Our research also revealed that sounds that go from their quietest moment to their loudest moment within three to five seconds grab people's attention the most.
That shaped the sound, quite literally.
It has an old school/sampled feel to the drums, a pitched up synthesizer that gives the effect of ‘up to 11’ but using a fairly dissonant chord, so it’s not overly harmonised, that builds, linking back to illustrate the notions of impact and being disruptive.
We produced it, everyone loved it. So here it is.
You’ll be hearing this a lot.
11:FS has always been visually striking, with our neon mint and brand identities for podcasts and events such as After Dark. The only audio branding we had that were recognisable to external audiences were the Fintech Insider, Blockchain Insider and Insurtech Insider themes but those are library pieces of music (you can hear the anecdotes about choosing the Fintech Insider theme in Episode 300 here) and without an established and consistent set of criteria.
With this sitting across all of our media, it will give us and our audiences the 11:FS ‘stamp’ and will resonate with audiences as they hear it. That audio branding will, over time, become synonymous with well produced, high quality pieces of content whether it’s a podcast, video or native content on LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.
With the audio brand now in place, we’re already thinking about how and where else we can use the notion – for example internal or employee communications.