At the movies, the most familiar sonic brands are decades old - the roaring MGM lion was first recorded in 1928. They are also ubiquitous. The 20th Century Fox theme is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that 17,000 gig-goers will sing it in unison with just a drumroll’s encouragement.
For a broad range of consumer brands, the long-term connection that a few well chosen notes can establish with consumers has proven irresistible. Consider Intel, McDonalds and Netflix. You’re as likely to hear the computer chip-maker’s five notes, the Lovin’ It whistle or the streamer’s resonating Bu-Bum as you are to think about what they’re selling.
“It's all part of the wider brand, making something hugely recognisable and memorable,” says The Podcast Host’s Colin Gray.
Research shows that the three Rs of Rhythm, Rhyme and Repetition - the building blocks of audio logos - catch in listeners’ memories. “When used consistently, a jingle can be a powerful tool for developing a unique branding asset,” Dr. Bradley Vines, director of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, Europe, told Inside Radio.
The theory is, fire an audio logo at your audience often enough and it will stick as a reminder of your podcast. That seems simple enough, but Colin Gray doesn’t see much sonic branding on the podcast scene at the moment, and he believes that by not using audio logos, podcasters are missing a trick.
Describing the audio branding journey that podcasts often go on, Gray says most producers start out with a simple piece of stock music at the beginning and end of an episode. If they move on, they will create an intro theme like the bumper that introduces a radio show. “That might be the same piece of music, with a pre-recorded voiceover, introducing the show and the host,” he explains.
The missing step is to think about sonic branding as a whole, introducing an audio logo throughout the show to create recognition. “It creates this consistent memorable soundscape for the listener,” he says; “Something that resonates with the feeling of the show and the personality of the host. All of that creates a stronger memory in the mind of the listener, and a bigger impact for the show as a whole.”
Publishers Reby Media have consistently bagged wins at the Publisher Podcast Awards, and judges regularly cite the extensive use of music and sound effects in their business podcasts as a very welcome surprise.
Reby’s Ross MacPherson says that when he joined the business in 2019, he felt that their use of music and sound effects definitely had the potential to move up a notch. “Now ideas around sonic branding and overall soundscaping of episodes is something that is talked about a lot,” he says, “not just myself but amongst our script-writers.”
For MacPherson, the effort you put into creating content for your podcast should carry across to your sonic branding. He describes audio logos as tone-setters and ‘associators’. “Think of the Eastenders or Match of The Day theme tune,” he says. “Most people would recognise them, they are synonymous with the shows. A fixed theme tune or jingle in your intro gives your podcast that identity.”
MacPherson suggests a good starting point for creating your own audio logo is a royalty-free music and sound effects site. “Download some and have a play around," he says, recommending Envato, with its library of 140,000 sound files, including audio logos and idents.
Gray says that with a bit of creativity, you can cut an audio logo from the music you’re already using. “Pop it into your editor and try to find a few notes or bars which really stand out and form something recognisable, but can also stand alone,” he suggests.
Some hosting services, including Alitu.com, the podcasting platform that grew out of The Podcast Host, offer theme-music packs that include intros and outros, plus short clips that reflect the theme and can be used as audio logos.
Of course, if your audio logo is a potentially invasive earworm, there can be risks as well as rewards. Just like their visual counterparts, bad logos are memorable for all the wrong reasons; they are jarring, don’t reflect the brand, and can actually stop listeners from, well, listening.
Even if you avoid creating a noise that annoys, some audio logos are just too much.
“Anything that's not pure content can be considered filler,” says Gray. “The logo is, say, 10 seconds where you're not engaging, entertaining or inspiring the listener. Also, it's possible to play it too often, and create irritation rather than recognition. If you keep it short, and not too frequent, I think it avoids those downsides pretty effectively.”
No podcast logos?
In the world of podcasting, Colin struggles to think of anyone who does audio logos really well.
“If I'm honest, there aren't a lot that stand out in my memory. It's a really underused tactic and none of the shows I've been a fan of over the years have really used it memorably. I think the closest I've come is the sound design on the original Gimlet podcast: Startup.”
He recalls how the show made use of a set of very simple background tunes which recurred throughout the first series. “They became very memorable and a big part of the show. Not quite an audio logo, but effective audio branding.”
For MacPherson, the audio logos, sonic brands and general soundscapes produced by the team at RadioLab stand out. “The way they frame their stories and capture emotions with the music and sound effects that they use is honestly out of this world, and for me they're a huge influence as to how I score Reby's episodes.”
In the broader sonic branding sphere, and testifying to the enduring influence of audio logos, both Gray and MacPherson both bring up old-school audio logos; the lo-fi Apple Mac chime for the former, and the slightly discordant and suspenseful THX build for the latter.
Among their current favourites, both picked out the Netflix audio logo as a personal favourite, thanks to its simple, distinctive and evocative nature. “Every time I hear it, I settle in ready for a good watch,” says Gray.