If someone asked you to name a brand with an iconic signature sound, which brands would spring to mind?

Perhaps it would be Intel, with its omnipresent four-note chime. Or the Mac start-up chord. Maybe your mind would go to one of the most well-known advertising jingles, McDonald’s’ “I’m Lovin’ It”. Personally, I’m a fan of the whispered EA Games slogan, “Challenge everything.”

An audio identity has the ability to instantly and powerfully summon up a brand in our minds. But while brands will often spend large amounts of money on a new logo or visual identity, few will make a point of investing in an audio identity.

Yet a visual brand only tells part of the story, argued Hamish Goulding, HSBC’s Head of Global Brand Strategy and Creative, at a recent World Media Group event, ‘The Impact of Voice and Sound’.  He went on to reason that sound helps brands grow: it builds accessibility, builds a ‘branding bond’, builds humanity and emotion, and creates an audio-visual identity for a brand.

It is for these reasons that when HSBC embarked on a global brand refresh after 154 years, it decided to create a distinctive audio identity. “We needed a soundtrack to the HSBC brand experience,” Goulding explained.

Nine weeks on from the unveiling of HSBC’s new sound, Goulding shared some insights into the process of creating the “soundtrack”, as well as some of the lessons that the team learned from the experience.

Universal music

To create the new sound of HSBC, the brand teamed up with French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. HSBC is a bank that has built its brand around being global – the name of its marketing campaign is “Together We Thrive”, and Goulding referenced HSBC’s latest series of ads in international airports, which aim to bring to life HSBC’s role in “connecting the world”. Thus, it wanted to create a sound that would cut across markets.

Jarre managed to do them one better, stating that, “With music, you don’t just want to be international – you want to be universal.”

The composer developed a total of seven tracks for HSBC, along with a ‘mnemonic’ (jingle) and a sound board. These ranged from the uplifting track ‘Orchestral’, to the pumped-up ‘Stadium’, to the electronic and soothing ‘Mindfulness’, which Goulding suggested could be used as hold music to calm frustrated customers.

Once the tracks had been created, HSBC started thinking about ways that the sounds could be used by its digital community, such as for app notifications, or the sound that plays in a branch when a cashier is ready. Goulding told the audience that HSBC put the new soundboard at the centre of the organisation, allowing people to use it in an open-source way.

The refreshed sound also met with a strong response from people outside HSBC, garnering 90% positivity on social media. Commenters on YouTube have even been calling for a CD release.

Be bold

What did HSBC gain from the experience of refreshing its sound? One of the major motivations for the refresh was to reduce the fragmentation of HSBC’s brand, said Goulding. The audio refresh achieved this by generating a brand score that could be used across multiple experiences, both online and offline – creating a universal brand identity through sound.

Goulding also emphasised that less can be more – in other words, even if you have a memorable sound, only use it when appropriate and necessary. “Don’t keep bashing people over the head with the same jingle,” he said.

Goulding’s final advice to the room was to “be bold with what you want to do with your brand”. HSBC took a risk by embarking on a type of brand refresh that few brands have carried out, and the bank wasn’t completely sure how it would be received. However, the outcome was very positive, and Goulding said that the brand is now exploring other ways that it can appeal to customers’ senses, such as through touch and smell.

An off-brand voice experience is like bad stock imagery – it erodes consumer trust