From the sonic branding studio: lessons learned on creating a sonic identity
Sixième Son’s US managing director, Colleen Fahey, and chief client officer, US, Daina Todorovic, discuss their agency’s project with Merrell and how sonic identities can create stronger connections between audiences and brands.
For many people, just thinking about developing a sonic identity for their brand can be a daunting proposition. Music, sounds, rhythms… it all seems subjective at first. Is it even possible to develop an identity that will satisfy an entire team?
As brands head into planning for 2024, the need for an authentic connection to their audience has never been more important. Creating a sonic identity is one key factor to achieving that connection. To find the best approaches for brands who have achieved this successfully, we revisited some of our best practices and lessons learned from a campaign conducted with the leading outdoor footwear brand, Merrell, to create its sonic identity.
Like many brands, internally Merrell’s marketing team had concerns about collectively agreeing on the same musical path. Yet, after engaging with an established process, the team aligned on a sonic identity that combines the sounds of organic instruments, human voices and nature to create an original, unique and ownable sound for Merrell.
In this piece, we share our insights with examples from their story on lessons learned to help brands and marketing teams move forward in 2024 and beyond to build closer bonds with their audiences through sonic identities.
Lesson 1: Start with understanding your brand
The first step is to understand your brand, and what it means. Often there is less in-house alignment on this than you may realise. Merrell began to develop its sonic identity as part of an overall brand expression exercise, so they had already agreed that Merrell is joyful and approachable. “We’re not a highly competitive, elitist brand,” said Kelly Warkentien, senior creative director at Merrell.
Joy, approachability, welcoming – all of these characteristics can be expressed in sound, to become part of a brand’s identity. But, the right emotions can only be captured if the internal team takes the time to develop a deep understanding of their brand essence.
Lesson 2: Know your target
The power of sound lies in the emotions it can evoke. Before you know whether a sound is good or bad for your brand, you need to know who your audience is, and what you want them to feel. In Merrell’s case, it was outdoor enthusiasts aged 25 to 35. Merrell’s goal was to tell them that anyone can enjoy an active lifestyle, whether that’s hiking up a mountain or crossing town by foot. If you want to be out and moving, you’re a good candidate for Merrell shoes.
Lesson 3: Get team alignment
Team alignment is essential to creating a successful sonic identity. Kelly recommends finding a north star that can help the team come to alignment. “Knowing your brand and what it stands for will guide your decisions regarding every aspect of your brand identity, including your sonic identity,” she explained.
Lesson 4: Respect the process
Often, when people begin working on their sonic identity, they typically listen to stock music options and then vote on the most preferred. This is the worst approach to take, and it’s guaranteed to fail.
With Merrell, we began by exploring moods. Which sound and mood best reflected Merrell’s brand? “I was really worried going into the exercise, because it’s really hard to articulate feedback on music. But by breaking it down into smaller steps, and exploring moods and words, we were able to provide useful feedback, and come to agreement faster,” Kelly said. “It works better if it is a collaborative and iterative process.”
Knowing the moods and words that embody a brand makes it easier for the musicians to compose a sonic identity that works for their clients.
Lesson 5: Test
It’s great when an internal marketing team loves the sonic brand they spent months developing, but will it move the consumer to the same degree? Leaving nothing to chance, Merrell tested their sonic identity with focus groups, measuring its impact.
“Part of that testing is brand awareness and brand recognition. What we saw is our brand recognition points going up. We can track per second where the spikes in recognition are, and it’s around people seeing our logo and hearing our sonic identity,” Kelly explained.
Lesson 6: Expand
Finally, Merrell suggests exploring how their sonic identity can be applied to other lines of business. Within Merrell there are three categories of products – hike, trail running, and lifestyle – and they’ve applied different variations of the sonic identity to each. For instance, the trail running treatment is much more high-energy than the lifestyle brand. “We have stems of the melody that are instrumental, and stems that are vocal. It all depends on who the target is, and what we want them to feel,” Kelly said.
An unexpected outcome
“Developing our sonic identity was really fun. It was the one meeting the entire team looked forward to each week.” That says a lot, considering that it was done during the pandemic, and meetings, including sharing audio samples and moods, were on Zoom.