At one point or another, everyone gets a jingle stuck in their head. Sometimes, if I am any indication, it can remain there for a lifetime. (Have it your way, Burger King).
And it’s not always just a brand’s song that latches on to your auditory cortex – sometimes it’s a single chime (turning on a Mac), or a few notes artfully strung together (Netflix) – both of which likely just played in your head.
To learn more about the use of music and sound by brands, and their role in the customer journey, we recently caught up with Ryan Dickinson, Creative Director at MassiveMusic Singapore. Dickinson, who joined the Singapore team from MassiveMusic Sydney earlier this year, specializes in bespoke music for advertising and sonic branding for companies.
Over the course of our conversation, he talks about his work, how the role of sound and music in branding has evolved over the years, his own musical journey, common mistakes brands make with sound, and more.
For those who might not know, can you walk us through what a Creative Director at a company like MassiveMusic does?
There are two main kinds of work I get involved in at MassiveMusic: bespoke music for advertising and sonic branding for companies. On the bespoke music side, my job is to understand the ask on the music front for a campaign, and bring that to life through our network of in-house and freelance composers.
“The brands that already understand themselves on a deeper level are often the easiest ones for us to create a sonic identity for.
At times, the ask is very clear, and my job is to draw out as much detail in what we’re trying to achieve before choosing the best composers for that style and working with them to iterate the music until I feel we have achieved what we had in the brief. Other times, I will also get more involved in the early referencing and help find the direction that works best for the film with the director or creatives before we get into the production stage with our composers.
Sonic branding has a lot more layers to it and there’s a lot more time spent understanding the brand we’re working with, what they’re wanting to achieve with the process, and how they sit within their sector. Once we have soaked all of that in there is a creative ideation phase where I will think of deeper concepts to be expressed through music and sound that speak to the brand. From here, we work with our composers to bring this musical vision to life in constant consultation with the brand.
I like to imagine there is a great story about a band or amateur musician’s journey as part of a sound creative’s professional career. What’s yours?
Always! I started out as a drummer in rock and metal bands doing my best to become the next Dave Grohl. My last one was a 10-piece funk band put together at my University where I was studying music. But, after around 15 years on the skins (that’s drummer talk for playing drums), I was corrupted by the dance music scene, and in particular one mind-blowing concert by The Chemical Brothers at Festival Hall in Brisbane, which sealed the deal.
I started DJing and producing, and was one half of a breakbeat/big beat production duo called ‘Bitrok’ for a number of years which led to working with artists such as Gotye and releasing a self-titled full-length album that I’m still very proud of to this day. After a short break, I had a second coming in the form of another production duo called ‘Otosan’, this time in house music. We had a nice level of success with over 10 million streams on Spotify and, in my humble opinion, released some really great tunes, but me moving around the world coupled with COVID made things a bit too tricky to continue.
There are plenty of great stories I carry from all of the above eras in my personal music journey, but best saved for a chat over a beer.
How has the role of sound and music in branding evolved over the years, and what are the key drivers behind this change?
The use of music and sound has always been an important tool in the brand marketer’s kit, but how that tool is used has of course moved with the times.
The classic ‘jingle’ that was used as far back as radio in the 1920s is now mostly heard in a much shorter format, commonly known as the ‘sonic logo’. The main driver here is that there are so many different touchpoints where a brand is heard, with many messages and tones of voice, but the use of this 2-3 second sound can unite all of these communications with a single memorable hook that the audience will remember.
“Consistency is a big one. The reason McDonald’s, Netflix and Intel are so widely known is that the brands are so consistent in the use of their sonic assets.”
The range of assets a brand might have in their sonic ecosystem has also grown a lot wider, from brand anthems with many different genre remixes, to UI/UX sounds and live event activations. As we move into VR/AR worlds, brands are also looking to have a cohesive strategy and sound to complement the visual aesthetic they’ve already invested in.
What are some of the more challenging audio projects to work on?
The challenging ones are probably the most fun! I’ve often found myself down rabbit holes of research and speaking with people I never thought I would while working in a music-based career. One day I could be speaking with a Latin language professor writing lyrics to announce the team entrances in The Laver Cup tennis tournament, the next I could be researching metalworkers or software developers to find out the feasibility of building something that has never been created before.
These more out of the box concepts we sometimes dive into often take a lot of research, trial and error, which of course all takes time but they often turn into a labour of love once you’re personally invested in the project.
What are the common mistakes that brands make when it comes to sonic branding?
Consistency is a big one. The reason McDonald’s, Netflix and Intel are so widely known is that the brands are so consistent in the use of their sonic assets. Once we’ve finished work on a sonic brand and delivered the final assets, we provide sonic guidelines and best practice training for how to use them. The actual implementation is usually something that is out of our hands and then with the brand to utilise.
What advice do you have for startups that are looking to develop a sonic branding strategy?
Spend some time understanding your brand first. Have some basic pillars setup that speak to what you stand for, understand how you want to position yourself against the rest of the market, who you want to speak to, and a view as to where you want to be positioned in the future.
The brands that already understand themselves on a deeper level are often the easiest ones for us to create a sonic identity for. We know how to express values in sound and music, and what resonates with different target audiences, but we need the brand to give us the target we’re aiming for. With a clearly defined set of goals, it’s just down to us to make that come to life in sound… which we’re pros at.
Can you share some of your favorite examples of brands that have used sound and music most effectively?
Might be an obvious one but I’ve always appreciated Apple’s trailblazing approach to music and sound. There are not many brands that have the ability to break an artist or song based almost solely on the use of the track on one of their TVCs, and consistently keeping things fresh with every new campaign. Another thing I love is the use of sound on the UI/UX front, from the Mac startup sound that almost anyone can identify, to the subtle but highly effective iPhone sounds. It’s something that you can tell a lot of love and thought has gone into.
Another one to call out is TikTok, a sound-on platform that has brought back the focus of music in the overall package when it was starting to drift away on other platforms like Instagram and Facebook. People regularly talk about some music styles as the ‘TikTok Sound’, which very few brands can say.
They also recognised the need for a unifying sonic logo as their content was getting shared around on other platforms, and I’m proud to say that our London team was behind that creation. One that, according to a recent Kantar study, is already ingrained into pop culture and recognisable by a huge percentage of the population.
What is some audio work you’ve done over the years that you are most proud of?
On the sonic branding front, I still love Kathmandu, my first sonic branding project with MassiveMusic. That one had me out in nature recording sound effects, speaking with ornithologists about the cadence of bird calls, and dealing with a tiny bird whistle manufacturer in the mountains of France who had previously worked with Björk.
On the campaign front, I really enjoyed getting stuck into a utopian futuristic world of music and sound for the recent Coca-Cola Y3000 campaign. It was a cool brief from the get go, and turned out just the way I was hoping when we first got the brief in. A great mix of music and sound design, with a wide range of interesting modular synth sounds woven through.
A well-recorded musical album that aspiring audio professionals should listen to:
Rock/metal: I’m always amazed when I put on Karnivool’s ‘Sound Awake’.
Electronic: The Chemical Brothers ‘Come With Us’.
Book everyone in the industry should read:
David Byrne – How Music Works.
Favorite show you’ve been watching lately:
The latest season of Black Mirror. Top-notch as always.
Something you want to learn or wish you were better at: