• Transform magazine
  • January 19, 2021

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Why marketers in the Gulf are braver than you, and why you need to listen

Charles Gadson BW

Charles Gadsdon, global director of growth at international music agency Massive Music, explores the ways in which marketers in the Gulf region are taking full advantage of the power of sonic identity to connect their brands with their audiences and argues that all other brand experts should take note because sonic brand/music strategy will be a must-have in the years to come.

I spend a great deal of time, in both my professional and personal life, talking about music. And the conversations I have in each differ greatly. Among friends, I might be trying to turn them on to a new artist I’ve discovered or encouraging them to branch out of their usual genres. But among prospects, I’m usually trying to convince them on why music is so important and powerful in steering behaviours and building brands - and how this can be proven.

Traditionally, we’ve always had to educate both brands and agencies on the benefits of a strong sonic identity and prove why it deserves the same attention and value as the visuals. Finally, the tide seems to be turning and we’re noticing conversations becoming easier and more productive. Because now they get it; brands are understanding the value and effectiveness of a sonic identity as an essential element in the suite of brand assets.

Whilst we can certainly credit the rise of technologies, like smart speakers, and music-oriented social apps like Spotify and TikTok, for helping brands use sound and music to connect with audiences, we must also give credit to a new generation of marketers who implicitly know the old ways of traditional marketing alone will no longer cut it in the modern world.

Owning the white space in the Gulf

I’ve witnessed this change greatly in the Middle East where a new breed of brand experts are revitalising and refreshing the image of business in the Gulf. Highly educated creatives and branding experts are utilising their learnings from the US and Europe to inject fresh spirit in the region, making the Gulf a new world contender and benchmark for business success.

We’re seeing savvy marketers proactively looking to own a share of the white space - developing a strong sonic identity that will distinguish their brand from the crowd. This is so exciting - because it’s the kind of opportunity we continually educate clients on - trying to get people to understand the potential that can be unlocked by creating a sonic strategy and experience. When you have an environment like this, where creativity starts to flow, it becomes even obvious when you see marketers that have pressed the snooze button. They are left playing catch up.

Take our recent work with Dubai’s RTA; one of only two transport systems in the world now to have a strategic sonic identity. RTA keeps Dubai moving, and is constantly improving an efficient and welcoming public transport system to keep up with the expansion of the city. So, by using the real sounds of the city, we created something that reflects not only RTA’s brand values, but also the personality of Dubai; clear, international, and most importantly, modern.

RTA’s new sonic identity has the flexibility of being adapted not only for communications purposes but also into the very fabric of the transport system. And this is a key lesson for other brands; assets created can be repurposed for different content needs and platforms. But most importantly, they need to be nurtured within the greater brand ecosystem, because consistency is key.

And how about the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, known as Ithra. An architectural marvel situated in the middle of the desert near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and cited by Time magazine as one of the greatest places on earth.

The marketing team understood that they could own this space and be the first building in the world to have a fully-implemented sonic identity - bridging tradition and modernity through sound. This could then be used across marketing content and help appeal to global different audiences used across the different events and offers that take place there.

Or how about the first stock exchange in the world to have a sonic identity? Yep, it’s Tadawul, the stock exchange of Saudi Arabia, The marketing team here could see how sound and music would help reconnect to global investors, opening up to a more diverse audience and creating a more approachable brand identity. The outcome was a sonic suite consisting of both long- and short-form sound assets to be used for different touch points, designed with both heritage and innovation in mind.

The power of sound

Sound can play a powerful role alongside other elements of a brand, as long as everything fits with what the brand stands for. The sound of a brand can only work if there is a basic recognition and association alongside other sensory elements, and critically if it matches with the character of a brand. Creating a sound that fits with the brand’s values and personality will hit the right note in engaging with people on an emotional level and offer real consistency.

Look at the likes of Apple or Coca-Cola who have dominated its respective sectors, harnessing the power of its own unique sounds and ensuring that it is consistent across all touchpoints. Last year, Mastercard saw the opportunity to do the same in the payments sector by launching its own sonic logo. The brand has continued to foster this and unveiled its first-ever music single in January this year, further solidifying its position as a new global leader in sonic branding.

It’s this recognition of how a smart and strategic sonic identity can act as a critical component for how consumers experience and interact with your brand that can ‘buy’ you a place in culture and in consumer’s lives for years to come.

Don’t look to competitors

When a brand with a sonic strategy emerges ahead of the pack, it’s normal to see some copycats. This is a common mistake brands make, across every sector - opting to look and sound like competitors rather than developing a sonic strategy that instead creatively reflects their own brands’ values. Thus, a vacuum appears where everyone starts to look and sound the same and sectors lack differentiation, meaning there’s a lack of recall amongst consumers.

We saw this start to emerge in March and April when the pandemic drew a dark cloud over businesses and consumers. Attempting to capture the sombre mood at the time, the rush of ads from brands wanting to show support all sounded eerily identical; slow piano and a touch of strings in a minor key. While this approach was meant to be personal and compassionate, this message got lost because there was no distinction between the ads from the distinct brands. This resulted in no genuine message nor real emotional support for the audience who stumbled upon it. It was almost as if brands threw their values to the wind, which is one of the cardinal marketing sins.

And to be clear; sonic branding is not a trend. Sound is a crucial and cost-effective element of brand-building. It’s not something you can dip in and out of as you please if you want to see real resonance and meaning. It requires methodical strategy and commitment. In the boardroom, visual logos are never subjected to the same scrutiny as sonic logos when it comes to questions about relevancy and justification of cost. There is both quantifiable and qualifiable science that proves the effectiveness of a coherent sonic brand and the positive effects it has on influencing behaviour and perceptions.

We can see what happens when there is inconsistency in a brand’s sound across platforms. In September, Netflix unveiled a new version of its iconic ‘ta-dun’ sonic logo tailored for the cinema for its theatrical releases. They put a lot of money and resources behind it, drafting Hans Zimmer to compose it, no less. But rather than creating a sound that was genuinely creative and disruptive - much like the brand and how it has found enormous success - they instead looked at the sector and copied, resulting in something quite underwhelming and not consistent with who they are as a brand and how audiences perceive them.

Whilst Netflix might have missed the mark with this new iteration of their sonic logo, it’s still fantastic to see such an established brand take a risk with sound. Though it lacked strategy (we could have helped with that…), it’s still evident the business is invested in sound and understands the importance of having a sonic identity. From a personal perspective, I can say that MassiveMusic has a number of sonic identity projects to be announced in 2021 that will push the boundaries in terms of creativity in sound across a number of industries. In the next few years, a sonic brand/music strategy will be essential rather than a nice to have. It's certainly making my job a lot easier, having to spend less time educating CMOs on the importance of brand building and recall through sound, and more time working with forward-thinking and brave new generation brand leaders in beautiful and unexpected place.