06 November, 2007

The logo is dead - long live the logo!

In a world of increasing visual clutter, has the traditional logo lost its impact? If so, what can marketers turn to next in order to identify and differentiate their brands?

A visual logo is not a brand, of course. Its job is to represent the essence of its brand’s character – to introduce it if we don’t know it, or to remind us of it if we do. As a photograph is to a person, a logo is to a brand. Visual logos are proven, effective and ubiquitous – which is where they have started to run into rapidly diminishing returns.

I call the problem ‘overmessaging’. Each of us now encounters a staggering 30,000 commercial messages every single day, and the vast majority of them are visual. This means that for the next few years at least, sonic logos – by which I mean short sonic mnemonics that are the exact audio counterparts of the visual logo – are going to be worth considering simply because they are relatively rare and can thus act as powerful differentiators. But there’s more to sonic logos than curiosity value: used wisely, they work exceptionally well. They also have a surprisingly long pedigree.

Sonic logos have actually been around for hundreds of years: street calling used to be the main way tradesmen advertised their services, as wonderfully romanticised in the film Oliver. It’s not so long since that practice died: I can remember the ‘rag-and-bone’ man’s mournful shout of “anyoldiron?” from my childhood in London. The modern-day equivalent is the ice cream van: just watch the cathartic effect of its chimes on surrounding buildings on a hot summer’s day to see the potency of sonic logos deployed in the right place at the right time. Most ice cream chimes are generic, but in Sweden the Hemglass ice cream tune is a universally known and loved sonic brand.

As soon as the advertising industry got sound to play with, it saw the potential of memorable music/voice combinations and the jingle and tagline were born. The dividing line between jingle or a tagline an a sonic logo is blurred. In general, jingles and taglines come and go with campaigns and rarely live for more than a few years. Even the most memorable usually get retired. “For hands that do dishes…”; “It’s the real thing”; these and many more once-mighty jingles or taglines are now languishing in retirement homes, though the brands are still very much with us today. Some taglines are so strong that they have become sonic logos. One in particular has outlasted entire generations of customers: Tony the tiger has been saying “they’re gr-r-r-r-reat!” since 1951. This is probably the longest-running sonic logo in the world, and it has now outlived its voice-over artist. Thurl Ravenscroft was famous for many Disney voices but Tony was his greatest legacy. He voiced the tiger for 54 years until his death in 2005, when Lee Marshall was appointed to carry the tradition forward.

Over the years, some sonic logos have even been registered as trademarks or service marks: the roar of the MGM lion and the old NBC three-tone chime are two examples.
These examples notwithstanding, it wasn’t until the 1990s that sonic logos started to be taken really seriously and their use considered by many major brands. The sea change came with Intel. Its five-note sonic logo, composed by Austrian musician Walter Werzowa, has become one of the best-known sounds in the world, and has spearheaded Intel’s extraordinary success as a brand – given that this is a product nobody ever sees and nobody ever buys.

Today, sonic brands are more in play then ever before. UK insurance giant Direct Line has a sprightly bugle call, which speaks volumes about urgency, assistance and playfulness in just three seconds. Apple has its comforting, uplifting start-up sound, engineered in 1991 by Jim Reekes and still shipping 16 years later. (It is inexplicable that the mighty Microsoft has never seen the value of a single start-up sound; the sound of Windows has changed with every successive version of the software, so that now there is no sound of Windows. They may be learning through: huge amounts of time and money were invested in ‘a language of sounds’ for the Xbox 360.) Lufthansa has invested in a corporate sound, comprising four rising tones that are aimed to convey feelings of taking off and wellbeing. Siemens has recently added a seventh element to its branding: sound has now joined logo, claim, typeface, colours, layout and style as one of the basic building blocks of the Siemens brand. The company has created both an ‘audio signature’ (aka a sonic logo) and also some mood sound as part of its new palette. Even political parties are joining in: Wales’s Plaid Cymru has a short sonic logo to welcome you in peace and harmony to its website.

The evidence is that more and more major brands are creating a sonic logo as a matter of course. With the continuing rise of mobile devices (along with custom ring tones and downloaded digital sound) I believe we have not yet scratched the surface of the sonic logo.

Is it time your brand found its voice – before your competitors find theirs?


  1. Hi - interesting read. But a couple of points if I may!?

    1) The reason that each successive version of Windows has a totally new start-up sound is surely down to the desire to brand that particular incarnation with its own identity. It's not Windows, it's "Windows XP", "Windows Vista".

    Just my point of view, but whilst it's true to say "Windows" has no long-standing, consistent sound, Microsoft is presumably keen to make a "wow - it's different" sonic mnemonic to juxtapose with the necessary visual familiarity that put upgrading users at ease. You seem to be suggesting you would prefer to have been greeted every morning by the same visual AND sonic logo since 1991!

    2) Could you please clarify what you meant earlier in the posting by "a product nobody ever sees and nobody ever buys" in reference to Intel?

    Best regards,


  2. Thanks Andrew. It's true that each version of Windows has its own sub-brand, but they are still all Windows. I'd still argue for consistency, which I believe is one of the two pillars of any brand (the other being differentiation). So for Windows the appropriate course would be to design an organic sound that morphs into a new variation with every new sub-brand, but which is still identifiably the Windows sound rather than something completely new and different.

    I do think Apple has benefited by having one consistent switch-on sound for all Macs, whatever their sub-brand.

    The reference to Intel is describing the fact that you buy a computer, not an Intel chip. You never see the chip, and it's not explicitly what you buy, even if you know it's in there. Nobody (except the computer manufacturers) buys Intel chips on their own.

  3. I'll go with you on the Windows point - they could have developed new executions from a single idea for each new incarnation (rather like CNN & Intel do.. although ironically those two have practically got each others' logo!)

    The Apple start-up sound is short & simple enough to be durable but I wonder whether even a subtle addition to that single note for each release would have upped the irritation factor?

    The old MSN Messenger incoming message sound (a wooden block type sound with indistinct notes) was far less irritating than the later musical 3 note motif to my mind. So I certainly won't defend their newer ideas as pure progress!

    I'm kind of guessing you may be a Mac man!? If so it may explain our difference of thinking over the next point...

    Although Intel do use the logo in reference to the "hidden away" processors in pre-built computers I wouldn't describe that as a product you never see, since a lot of people do build their own PCs or at least buy individual components for them...


    This is the last processor I bought.. all Intel branded - and when I took it out of the box I half expected it to play the logo, so strong is the association.

    You know, I guess one day they might just do that ;)

    Cheers, Julian!


  4. I'll go quietly on the claim that nobody buys an Intel processor! Next time I will alter the language to 'very few people' or similar, though I would guess that the proportion of Intel owners who buy components or hand-build PCs still be infinitesimally small, even if it represents a sizeable absolute number of people.


I welcome your feedback!