Triggered by brand sounds

Back when TV was new (in our homes), when a TV show had the sound of a phone ringing, we may have looked at our own home’s landline phone and wonder if it was the one ringing. And then realize that it was the sound of a phone ringing inside the TV… and then laugh at our own response.

Hold on to that thought.

Two years ago, I recall an instance when my son recognized what I was doing on my phone using the sound of an app.

My kids identify the McDonald’s ad through the jingle too, whenever I play some ad of the brand (as part of my research) on my laptop (without my earphones).

Brands usually invest a lot to create sound signatures and even more money trying to imprint them in our minds over relentless, repetitive usage. Some of the best-known/remembered audio signatures from Indian brands include Britannia (ting ting-ti-ding), Lijjat Papad’s bunny laughing, among others.

Globally, the Intel sound is mighty easily recognizable.

Brands and agencies want the brand’s audio signature to be recognized in order to let people remember the brands through multiple sensory faculties – vision, sound, and more.

Is there a situation when people instantly recognizing a brand through a sound signature backfire? Yes, as three brands are realizing now for their ads during Olympics!

Salesforce-owned Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Nike are actively advertising during the Olympics, in the US.

Here are the ads.


Microsoft Teams


All three ads start with a unique sound that people can identify instantly and viscerally: the Slack ad starts and ends with the ‘knock brush’ new message sound in Slack, the Teams ad starts with a ‘meeting started’ notification sound and the Nike ad starts with a very, very popular Apple iPhone alarm sound!

That these sounds are so instantly recognized by millions of people even in an ad should be those products’ brand managers’ wet dream. But, beyond mere brand recognition, since those sounds also remind people of a call-to-action, they are producing the opposite reaction!

Remember the landline phone example from the beginning of this post?

Tons of people, while trying to simply tune into the Olympics broadcast on the web or on TV, are triggered to assume that there is a new Slack message, or a new meeting on Teams, or their phone’s alarm ringing because of the way these ads use such familiar sounds!

The mistake, of course, is that these brands (not Apple though, since Nike is using that sound in their ads) conflate an identifiable brand signature sound with a notification sound in their products that is meant to denote something beyond brand recognition – in these cases, a specific action.

To be fair, even the McDonald’s jingle has an implied call-to-action – order something from McDonald’s (or feel like ordering), or head to a McDonald’s to buy something. But that call-to-action triggered by the brand is brand-centered action. In the case of a Slack notification or a Teams Meeting, they are less about those brands and more about the users’ communication between themselves. The brands are mere conduits in enabling that communication.

Also, when people assumed that they are done with their work and are sitting in front of the TV for non-work entertainment (via sports), these sounds reminding them that work may be beckoning them is a rude reminder of how the pandemic has left lasting changes in our behavior. We have been living and breathing these sounds every single day in the past 1.5 years and even after assuming that our work is done, the brands using them in a TV ad for a very different reason are triggering work-related memories and actions.

The least these brands could do is to acknowledge and understand the difference between a recognizable brand signature sound and a product’s action sound, and not mix up both.



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