A wide range of industries are using sonic branding strategies. The origins of sonic branding involves a seminal concept used in the literature: ‘Atmospherics’. This is Kotler’s (1973) description of what is also known today as ‘marketing of the senses’ (Hultén et al, 2008; Krishna, 2013), where marketing with music is one of the marketing strategies explored. This way of investigating music as one of several parts of the in-store ‘atmosphere’, or as speaking to one of the senses, highlights music’s role as part of a larger experience in-store that requires other parts as well (colors, textures, light, smell, taste) to be successful. These are a few examples of companies with internationally renowned brands using sonic branding strategies extensively: Absolut, Clarion Hotels, Coca-Cola, Mitsubishi, Heineken, SAS airlines, Oriflame (Lusensky, 2010), Starbucks (Dominus, 2006), and Nike (Fulberg, 2003). Just like the practice spans across diverse industries, the research field is scattered across disciplines and labels. In music research in marketing, it is common to treat the following labels as more or less synonymous: ‘brand sound, sound branding, corporate sound, sonic branding, acoustic branding, audio branding, and sound mark’ (Kilian, 2009, p. 43), and it is not predominantly under the label of ‘sonic branding’ that the literature on the subject is to be found. The labels commonly used to describe music’s presence in consumer society and especially its use in marketing are sonic branding, acoustic branding, audio branding, sound branding, branded sound, music branding, Muzak, elevator music, piped music, background music, foreground music, soundscape, audiovisual identity, sound studies and sonic design. Although the aim here is to review literature on ‘sonic branding’, this cannot be done without widening the concept to include these different labels. Taking a broad view of sonic branding, and including various strands of research on music in marketing in this way, the present literature review proposes to fuse all of the above mentioned concepts under the sonic branding label.
Because the term ‘sonic branding’ is the term most frequently used both in the strategic branding literature (Jackson, 2003) and in the field of Consumer Culture Theory (CCT), (Arnould and Thompson, 2005) as a description of how sound is made to interact with brands to create meaning (Schroeder and Borgerson, 1999), I chose to use sonic branding, rather than any other label, as the over all label in this consumer-centered article. Sonic branding has been suggested to increase brand ‘loyalty’ (Fulberg, 2003). Further, it has been defined as consisting of various ‘elements’ which all ‘affect us emotionally and increase brand recognition, oftentimes beyond our awareness and our field of action’ (Kilian, 2009, p. 36). Thus, it is defined as beneficial to brands, and as something that consumers often do not even consciously perceive of. This ability of branding with music and sound to go virtually unnoticed, and still affect people, opens up widely for discussions about ethics and possible manipulation on the part of stores and brands (Bradshaw and Holbrook, 2008; Gustafsson, 2005). Interestingly, ‘sonic branding’ is one of the few concepts which includes music as well as other sounds in the label, as ‘sonic’ means ‘relating to sound or using sound waves’ and ‘denoting or having a speed equal to that of sound’ (Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2010).
The ‘sonic branding’ label, or concept, also makes an explicit connection to brands and branding, which seems useful because of the potential for future research on both music and sound in the branding area.
The mentioned labels are not consistently used between marketing researchers doing research in what I define here as the ‘sonic branding’ area. For instance, there is a more frequent use of the labels ‘audio’ and ‘acoustic’ branding in, for example, Nordic and German texts (see Bode, 2009; Kilian, 2009), whereas UK- and US-based writers seem to be using ‘sonic’ (for example Schroeder and Borgerson, 1999; Fulberg, 2003; Jackson, 2003) or ‘sound’ branding (for example, Treasure, 2007) to a greater extent. By way of comparison, ‘audio branding’ is defined as ‘process of brand development and brand management by use of auditory elements (audio branding elements) within the framework of brand communication’ (Audio-branding-academy.org, 2015). ‘Acoustic branding’ has thus been described as the ‘process’ by which it is carried out (ibid.). Thus, if ‘audio’ is the approach, ‘acoustic’ is the practice. However, the immediate difference between the two labels when reading articles about them is that practitioners prefer the term ‘audio’, and theorists prefer ‘acoustic’ branding, and they do not make any difference in whether this is about the approach or the practice (see Bode, 2009; Kilian, 2009). Generally, both these terms are also described as synonyms of ‘sonic branding’. Indeed, one or both of these concepts are often introduced together with sound branding and sonic branding when defining them: ‘Audio branding – also known as sound branding or sonic branding – describes communication through sound, using brand sound elements like an audio logo, a brand song, or a brand voice’ (Bronner and Hirt, 2009: p. 11). This kind of piling of the labels by mentioning them together seems to prompt the suggestion made in the present article: namely that a more coordinated use of the term ‘sonic branding’ would help unify the field and increase its impact on a wider audience. These various labels being used create confusion among those interested in learning more about the area. This confusion is unnecessary because there is in fact already a consensus among researchers about the synonymous meaning of these labels, as they are often mentioned together when defining the central concept.
In the CCT literature, sonic branding investigates consumer practices in relation to, for instance, consumer agency, identity and community (Arnould and Thompson, 2005). Importantly, the role of the DJs as ‘prosumer’ of music has been a recurring sonic theme in CCT. DJs are seen as having a special role in music production and consumption because of their increasing power over what music consumers listen to. As a ‘prosumer’ the DJ becomes a looking glass through which music as combined production and consumption can be amply studied. The phenomenon of the prosumtion of music carried out by the DJs indeed magnifies co-production issues compared with, for instance, the case of consumers making playlists for their personal MP3 players. However, possibly, the extent of the empirical and theoretical interest in ‘the DJ’, in the sonic branding literature can be explained further by the fact that several influential researchers and sonic branding consultants have had a career as DJs and/or music producers in the past (Giesler and Pohlmann, 2003; Heitanen et al, 2010; Lusensky, 2010). In a recent article, Oakes et al (2013) propose jazz music as a branding tool that consumers can use to create their own meanings. Likewise transgressing boundaries between theory and practice, user and producer; Kubacki and Croft (2004) describe the divide between the arts and marketing practice as an ongoing moral struggle. While jazz and rock musicians see their influence on marketing practice, marketers tend instead to see only their own impact on the jazz and rock scene, they argue. Kubacki and Croft (2004) thus picture the arts versus commerce divide, which is at the basis of the sonic branding literature (Oakes et al, 2013), in a way that illustrates the dialectical nature of music creation in the business context. Importantly, a special issue in Consumption Markets and Culture (Bradshaw and Shankar, 2008) explores the boundary of consumption and production as applied to various music scenes, styles and uses. The special issue is ground breaking in the sense that it clearly marks out music as a site for interesting future research in consumer culture research.
In the guest edited special issue on ‘The production and consumption of music’ in Consumption Markets and Culture (Bradshaw and Shankar, 2008), the goal is to discuss and transcend the borders between production and consumption in music, inspired by music sociologist Attali’s (1985) writings on the politics of music. The articles in the special issue covers a range of topics: the social and romantic role of the Jamaican dancehall (Olsen and Gould, 2008), the resisting potential of Tibetan music (Morcom, 2008), the role of anti-apartheid music as ‘retro’ today (Drewett, 2008), the role of jazz in film plots (Holbrook, 2008), and self-identity and music (Hesmondhalgh, 2008). The guest editors put forth a wish that these articles ‘will contribute to wider discussions of music more generally within our field’ (Bradshaw and Shankar, 2008). This wish expresses the comparable newness of this kind of work on music in the field of CCT, by stressing the need for more studies and more diversity in consumer research on music, rather than proposing that a certain focus in the area would need more attention.
Another way to investigate music in marketing is to see it as primarily a memory device, in other words, studying music as ‘mnemonics’, rather than as a cue for the sense of hearing. Tom’s (1990) marketing study of consumer responses to nine advertisements, with the brand name removed, suggests that original music in advertising is more effective as a memory device than parodies of songs (where the brand name has been included), or original recordings of hit songs. Van Dijck (2006) also investigates recorded music’s role for both personal and collective memory processes and culture. Tempo (for example, Milliman, 1982, 1986) and perceived time in relation to type of music playing (Yalch and Spangenberg, 1990) have also received much attention. Consumers’ reaction to background music, especially in terms of purchases made, is well researched in the literature on in-store music (see, for example, Yalch and Spangenberg, 1990).
Mapping the sound landscape to propose sonic branding strategies, Kilian (2009, p. 41) provides a ‘typology of brand elements’ where the sound is divided into two categories: ‘narrowly defined’ and ‘broadly defined’. The narrowly defined ones are those that are made especially for that brand, like jingles and sound logos, whereas the broadly defined elements are those that come from collaborations and voices. While the typology is useful as a framework for discussion for practitioners and researchers alike, it could be made more functional if Kilian (2009) engaged in a discussion about how to use it. He presents a figure of the ‘brand formation process’, directed to practitioners, but does not offer a discussion of the implications of the typology.
On a similar, although theoretically driven note, Bode (2009) is mapping out the workings of music depending on the context where it appears. He argues that music is a ‘stimuli’, and as such it cannot be extracted from its cultural context without becoming a hollow ‘artifact’ (ibid.). In the consumer-oriented sonic branding literature, Bode’s (2009) review of music studies in advertising takes an important stand for interpretive research on music. Although Bode (2009) places this research in ‘acoustic branding’, he seems to be interested mainly in the interplay between music and images, rather than in music and brands. Further, Bode agrees with Adorno et al’s (1970) tradition in which music is seen as an inevitably vague signifier – which basically means that the music gains meaning from its context/changes meaning depending on the context. In Bode’s (2009) research this is a question of musical ‘fit’ with the ad context, and he makes an attempt to create a model that fuses music and cultural context in advertising. Bode’s model of musical ‘fit’ is useful because it connects advertising to music, taking into account that incoherence between picture and music may very well be part of what creates meaning for consumers.
Like Bode (2009), Beverland et al (2006) investigate the concept of ‘fit’; however, they connect it to brand values rather than ads. For a store to attract new consumers, they argue that a ‘music-brand “fit” ’ is especially important. They define ‘fit’ as ‘congruency between music and other atmospheric in-store variables … and perceptions of the brand’ (Beverland et al, 2006, p. 983). According to Beverland et al (2006), the reason why musical ‘fit’ and ‘misfit’ are important for consumers and brand managers is that the music can mediate the relationship between them in a number of ways depending on whether the consumer perceives a ‘fit’ with the brand values or not. A perceived ‘fit’ can lead to a favorable experience of the brand and even increase consumers’ brand loyalty, they suggest. A perceived ‘misfit’ could diminish the perceived status of the brand, or enable a brand to reposition itself. The methods used by Beverland et al include interviews with 20 consumers using projective techniques, probing about certain music. The empirical material represented by detailed quotes from the consumers (Beverland et al, 2006) suggests that consumers do consider, and react to, in-store music in relation to the way they perceive the brand in question. Thus, it is suggested that there is an important connection between a brand and its use of music, strategically toward consumers. Music’s ‘fit’ or ‘misfit’ has got importance in consumers’ meaning making with ads and in the store (Beverland et al, 2006; Bode, 2009). Sonic branding has the potential to fill the brand with meaning through the music, although the context needs to be taken into account when using music.
Social control through commercial or public use of music, and the related ethical considerations, emerges as another main concern in the literature (see, for example, Attali, 1985; DeNora, 2000; Bradshaw and Holbrook, 2008). At the same time, it is widely argued that today’s consumers are so used to sonic branding practices in-store that they have come to see it merely as ‘background noise’ (McGinn, 2002). In spite of this view of in-store music, however, McGinn (2002) sees sonic design as still holding largely unrealized possibilities for industrial design. She mentions Nokia’s innovative use of ring tones, which were more thought through than the original ‘ring’ of a telephone, as a way to bring the sound and the industrial design together and include the user in a successful manner. Whereas McGinn (2002) champions the possibilities of sonic branding to achieve a connection between a sound and a brand, she also sees sonic branding practices as verging on ‘coercion’ (p. 87). In other words, she considers the potentially manipulative aspect of corporate sonic branding practices problematic. While designers should explore the possibilities of sonic branding, they must also take their ‘responsibility’ regarding the power of music to affect people on a near subconscious level, McGinn (2002) argues. This is similar to DeNora’s (2000) and Bradshaw and Holbrook’s (2008) view of corporate power and the use of piped music, which will be discussed further in a later section, in relation to how music functions in people’s everyday lives.