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Last time we talked about authenticity in sonic branding. Here we’re going to expand on that theme and explore how authenticity (or lack thereof) can make or break a small business. As one of my contemporaries Jeanna Isham has said, “Sonic branding is not just for the fortune 500.” She’s right, of course. In fact I would argue that sonic branding is actually more important for small to medium business. It’s a huge equalizer, and in many cases, it’s the key to dominating the market. I’d like to illustrate with one of our success stories here in Kingston, and kind of an unconventional one at that.

When I started this business over ten years ago, a friend of mine joked that I should do a jingle for the sex shop. We had a quick laugh at the idea. Then a couple years later I found myself producing a jingle for the sex shop; specifically Pleasure Island: The Adult Fun Store. Today everyone in Kingston knows the Pleasure Island jingle.

Pleasure Island Jingle

I was speaking to a colleague recently who commented on how catchy the jingle is. I pushed back a bit saying that the reason it works isn’t that it’s catchy, but that the brand was so well defined, even long before I came into the picture. Making a catchy jingle is easy. It’s much harder to produce something that is authentic and memorable, and maybe more importantly, memorable for the right reasons.

Sonic branding isn’t arbitrary. There’s a process. We start by getting to the core of the brand and identifying key traits, attributes, and values. Next we decide how these qualities translate into music, voice, and sound. From here we build a sonic style guide. This keeps us on course and on brand as we start creating sonic assets and media, which in this case was a jingle.

Generally the more defined the brand, the better the product you’re going to get. This was what I found so attractive about working with Pleasure Island. They knew they didn’t want to be seen as sleazy and dirty. Sure, there was a sexy element to the brand, but they also wanted to be seen as fun and knowledgeable. This was great because it got us away from the obvious 70s slow-jams that are so typical of the industry. This was an audio branding professional’s dream because when you’re presented a brand that is so well defined and so original, it’s hard not to come up with something great.

Today Pleasure Island is not only top of mind, but it dominates the local market. Business went up twenty percent in the first few years. It has also lead to a lot of uncomfortable conversations between parents and children, but of course that was more by accident than by design.

Now let’s turn this around a bit. When does sonic branding not work for a local business? An obvious answer is the opposite of what we just described; having a brand that is not well defined. Sometimes you might suggest to a client that they need to have a better sense of themselves before committing to a sonic strategy.

For example, a while back an account rep and I were working on brand music for a smaller business (which I will not name here). We both agreed that this business was catering to higher-end clients, but they insisted they wanted to remain accessible. Fair enough. So this was the approach we took in building their brand music. Flash forward a couple of years and this business (quelle surprise!) is now focussed on higher-end clients. Of course there’s nothing wrong with change and adaptation. That’s the nature of business. The problem is now their brand music no longer matches their image and approach. If they were honest with themselves from the start, they could have saved a lot of time and money.

If you run a business, regardless of its size, you need to ask yourself what sort of business you want to be. Most businesses can be divided into two categories: those that are surviving and those that are thriving.

Are you focussed on

  • short-term gains or building long-term relationships?
  • cutting costs or investing?
  • following trends or setting trends?
  • building a business or building a brand?

While most business people would tell you their focus is to thrive, most have, in actuality, positioned themselves in a much more reactionary way. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, but it does make brand building a challenge, especially for smaller businesses. In a larger business you typically have more resources to help reinforce whatever brand you are trying to build, whether that’s driven by policy, culture, marketing, etc. But the smaller the business, the fewer points exist between the decision makers and the public – sometimes none. The smaller the business, the more its workplace culture must walk the talk if it’s going to build a brand.

I remember having a conversation a couple of years ago with an account rep about this car dealer (who will also not be named here). This was back when COVID had created all kinds of supply chain issues. This dealer was frustrated by customers going out of market. He said, “Where’s the loyalty? We’re out in the community. We sponsor children’s sports teams.” That may have been the case, but that wasn’t the image they had built. Many car dealers are notorious for saying and doing whatever they think will land a sale. This strategy may work short-term, but it doesn’t build long-term relationships. If you want to look at brand archetypes, they saw themselves as the everyman, but presented themselves as the jester instead.

If you can find the right experts to take your advertising to the next level, there’s a real opportunity to make a huge impact, especially if you’re in a small or niche market. If you’ve got a strong sense of who you are, all your other media should naturally fall into place. I’ve seen sonic branding do wonders for small business. Audio media is not only very cost effective and versatile, it’s an incredible equalizer. I’ve seen smaller businesses dominate their competitors with the right brand sound. But this only works if the brand’s image and the actual experience align. Building a brand is building a relationship with the public. Relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on consistency. If there’s no trust, there’s no business.