How Was Sonic Branding Invented?
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
We hear one question all the time: how was sonic branding invented? The answer is that it wasn’t. It came about as a natural outgrowth of the way humans have historically used sound as cues, instructions, confirmations, and even messages.
The very first humans used the sound of their mothers’ voices as a means of identifying “mom.” As we point out in our webinar, Brands Like Hit Songs, a human infant learns the sound of their parents’ voices when they’re still in the womb.
Of course, since the mom carries the infant for nine months, the infant hears her voice more than he/she hears the other parent’s voice, whether that’s another mom or a dad.
Have you ever noticed how some infants become highly agitated when they hear a voice that is someone other than their parents? That’s because the sound of a stranger’s voice is unfamiliar to the infant, and it signals possible danger.
So, really, from conception, we humans are wired for sound and we use it from birth to navigate various situations and experiences.
Brands started using sound long before there was McDonald’s, State Farm or NBC.
Sonic branding's musical beginnings
It all started with vaudeville, which began here in the U.S. in the 1870s. Vaudeville was a type of inexpensive variety show that consisted of comic sketches, song and dance routines, and magic.
There was nothing else like it anywhere in the world, so it attracted a large audience.
In fact, back then, if you were a songwriter, the only way your song could become known around the world was if it were to be performed in a vaudeville show. Remember, there was no radio, no TV, and no Spotify back then. All music was performed live.
As is still the case today with respect to Broadway musicals and artists and bands, each vaudeville show gained a unique identity, partly because of the music used in it. The music gave the show its identifiable “sound.”
But then, a technological advancement called radio emerged, and vaudeville quickly breathed its last breath.
The emergence of radio
Commercial radio debuted on November 2, 1920, when KDKA made the nation's first commercial broadcast. That was the beginning of music’s progression from the traveling vaudeville show to a new form of entertainment: the radio show.
KDKA, which broadcast out of Pittsburgh, became a huge hit and inspired other companies to take up broadcasting. In the next four years, 600 additional commercial stations popped up around the country. The way they made money was through advertisers, all of whom needed a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors in this new sound-rich medium.
In 1926, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) formed the first national radio network, called NBC (National Broadcasting Company), which eventually became one of the big three television networks a couple of decades later.
Was NBC the first audio logo?
And, that was the real start of sonic branding: the use of music, usually in the form of jingles, to create a unique sonic identifier for brands that advertised on the radio, and, in the case of NBC, the network itself.
You’d have to be hard-pressed to think of anyone who can’t sing the NBC three-note sonic logo, which debuted over 90 years ago: three distinctive chimes more memorable than any chirp could ever be for pairing with its visual "Peacock" logo.
Those chimes are what global marketing experts have long identiﬁed as the ﬁrst use of a “sonic brand” a/k/a "audio logo"—a series of sounds so unmistakable that they're used to teach musical intervals to college music majors ("N" is "doh," "B" is "la" and "C" is "fa," otherwise known as the first, sixth and fourth notes of a major scale, respectively).
And, thus, the first commercially used, nationally broadcasted sonic brand/audio logo was born.