Charles Gadsdon: how Coke taught the world sonic branding

When it comes to sonic branding and strategy, no brand I can think of has done it better, bigger or longer than Coca-Cola. I’d even be as bold to say that it is the pioneer of sonic branding.

It’s led the way for decades and still remains one of the strongest brands to use sound and music in a way that not only strengthens the brand but drives recall, emotion and distinguishes it constantly. The brand is synonymous with the sound of Christmas in the UK through its recognisable and anticipated ‘Holidays are Coming’ advert, helping to perpetuate the widely-held myth that 1930s admen designed Father Christmas’ red suit to match the Coca-Cola brand.

Regardless of the exact origins, the beverage brand has been extremely powerful in cementing this image of Santa in the psyche of consumers for decades.

This is just one example of and testament to the brand’s long-standing commitment to harnessing the power of sound, and its understanding of how to successfully execute this in its global advertising.

Within seconds of watching, you know you’re seeing an ad for Coca-Cola despite many of them being worlds apart from each other creatively. The ads span different countries, languages, and musical genres, from classical to rock to folk to hip-hop. And yet the ads are all distinctively brand Coca-Cola, in great part because of its unique soundscape linking them all together.

Coca-Cola’s sonic toolkit might seem simple at first; the sound of the bottle opening, the bottle cap, the ice cubes, the pour, the fizz, and the thirst-quenching ‘ahhh’ at the end, topped off with its signature five-note iconic sonic logo. But pairing all those sound elements together, and you’ve created one of the most powerful audio strategies to date. The simple requisite means that composers and creatives are in heaven – they can come up with different ideas because ensuring the sonic branding is embedded allows them to be so flexible.

That’s why you can see an ad for Coca-Cola with animated polar bears dancing to classical ice-skating music, or a virtual character in a video game coming off a football pitch, or Father Christmas arriving into a snowy town – and still maintain that brand continuity and instant recognition.

The power of the simple five-note sonic logo has inspired many other brands. Most notably, McDonald’s also recognised the influence a robust music strategy has on a brand’s positioning. With ‘I’m Lovin’ It,’ Justin Timberlake delivered McDonalds’ new brand slogan – first disguised as his own song with no connection to burgers. The commercials went on air half a year after JT’s song hit the Billboard charts, making the company’s first global marketing campaign since 1955. The history of who wrote it is controversial with claims coming from Pharrell Williams and Pusha T amongst others.

This meant McDonald’s signature sound had millions of Justin Timberlake fans knowing or unknowingly singing it. When the brand partnered with the release of Despicable Me, the ad showed the film’s Minion characters singing the jingle, strengthening that strategic brand partnership.

Although without a sonic logo, Apple is another example of sonic branding utilised correctly. You recognise an Apple ad by its energy, colour scheme and iconic use of music – there’s a strategic approach to sound here and it works. Now it has started implementing the sounds of its products into the campaigns; for example, the sound of an Apple Watch notification or the sound of the FaceTime dial tone. Utilising product and user experience sounds into above-the-line communications provides the glue between brand and creative and drives that much-needed recall. One could argue Apple has created the next generation of sonic branding incorporating its own sound suite into above-the-line communications. Its use of this subliminal sonic strategy is a homage to the work Coca-Cola has done.

For us at MassiveMusic, it’s great to be able to point to one of the world’s biggest and most successful brands and prove how music and sound have played a crucial role in the success. There’s a reason why Coca-Cola can create an advert around a World Cup and have 65,000 fans singing their brand signature song without even really realising it.

The strategy they first implemented all those years ago hasn’t really changed – it’s just as effective today which is why it remains a core part of their marketing. I have no doubt that this brand equity that has built over time is what will play a major role in helping them bounce-back after a turbulent few months.

It didn’t come as a surprise when the recent IPSOS report found that unique sonic cues are more effective than assets leveraged from wider culture, such as celebrities and licensed music. And whilst less frequently used, audio assets are, on average, more effective than some visual assets. Coca-Cola has understood this for decades and has been able to completely own that space to its advantage. That’s why brands need to recognise that a strong sonic strategy is a core element of brand-building and utilising it can unlock the priceless advantages it brings in a new age of sonic experience.

Charles Gadsdon is global director of growth at international creative music agency MassiveMusic.

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    Really surprised to know about the power of sonic branding. It is quite evident that adding music to advertising has greatly improved the brand positioning of top brands, namely Coco-Cola and McDonald’s. Every brand must consider implementing sonic branding as one of their brand-building strategies.