Sonic Branding in the Age of COVID-19

by Amy Crawford


We spend a lot of time thinking about using music and sound to tell stories; how to create emotional connections between brands and customers or entertainment and audiences. With the uncertainty and disruption this pandemic brought to the lives of people all over the world, how we connect — and the tone of that connection — needs to evolve, and the soundtracks to ads and marketing efforts need to evolve as well. No matter how great the creative may be, if the sound is wrong, brands will literally come across as tone deaf, insensitive and out-of-touch.

At the onset of COVID-19, agencies’ efforts to urgently solve the new needs of their brand clients were no small feat. Almost immediately, consumers were met with messages intended to help soothe our collective anxiety, find meaning and unity in challenging times and honor essential workers and those on the frontlines.

Much of this work was produced remotely with whatever limited resources were available, from stock footage to social media content. Criticism of creative output came easy on the heels of this first wave of post-pandemic ads, and in particular, some of the soundtracks to these ads, as Microsoft Sam did in this mashup of the same pensive piano music playing across a variety of brand commercials. What some call musical cliché, others may see as the best possible solution for a time of resource chaos in the advertising and creative services industries.

It was also easy to sniff out ads that were produced pre-COVID and feel a visceral reaction to their incongruity with this moment.

How a brand represents itself through music and sound is more vital now than ever before, as the consumer antennae for disingenuous and inauthentic advertising is finely attuned.

How a brand represents itself through music and sound is more vital now than ever before, as the consumer antennae for disingenuous and inauthentic advertising is finely attuned. Getting it wrong risks losing more than attention; the true risk is losing customers altogether, something few brands can afford.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind as you and your marketing teams are rethinking the sound of your brand and creative efforts in the age of COVID:

  1. The music and sound of advertising and marketing can reflect beyond just the gravitas of the pandemic – there are more dimensions to this moment in time that are emotionally valid and true. We can share messages that uplift, inspire and celebrate daily victories. We can provide a soundtrack to escape. Or to underscore the humorous moments. As the Microsoft Sam video plainly shows, there is more than one tone and one instrument at our disposal, and we should use them.
  2. Think of your brand as a protagonist within the story of this historic moment in time. Consider these questions: What is your persona and role? Is it to provide stoic leadership? Comedic relief? To be a comforting friend? What soundtrack best fits that persona? If we are living within a real-time story called “The World During and After Coronavirus,” who are you and what are you saying to the world?
  3. Silence is golden. Moreover, silence is human. Not every moment needs a sound. Do not be afraid of silence. It can mean more to leave the space for us to hear our own heartbeats than to fill an ad with clutter. Right now, the less produced things feel, the more they will connect. It doesn’t make sense to see anything polished to perfection when we’re all at home, our hair is unbrushed and nothing is normal.
  4. Make smart sync choices. Facebook Portal running a spot with “Under Pressure” brings levity, a sense of playful determination, and the weight of the moment together in a way that feels far more right than another piano soundtrack. What songs will become the anthems of this moment in history? Your brand is the DJ at this massively strange party.
  5. Music is healing. We are seeing music play an enormous role in bringing people together, virtually. Artists are having direct conversations with their fans in ways they weren’t before. We’ve seen a lot of “live from the living room” performances where we get a real, stripped back glimpse at the other side of glamour — as if the Wizard of Oz has come out from behind the curtain. There’s greater potential for artists to connect more intimately with their fans on a large scale right now, and hopefully into the future as well. But what’s the next chapter in virtually staged events, fan experiences and performance? What role can brands play in innovating this space?
  6. It matters how you say it. Consider your tone of voice. Families and individuals are mostly confined within the same, small square footage each day, and brands should consider themselves houseguests. What do we look for in a neighbor, a friend, someone we would be okay with inviting into our private and now very cramped lives? Be empathetic, friendly, real, conversational and self-aware. No yelling.
  7. Turn the mundane into a moment of delight. If nearly all adults have a portable speaker in their pockets, what can brands do with that might bring some joy to our newfound daily routines and experiences? Long-awaited groceries or needed supplies have been delivered to the front door. What might that moment sound like? Popular items are back in stock. How might sound offer a mini celebration for these tiny victories? What could some positive breaking news sound like as it gets blasted out to the world online? Consider this question: How can you deliver small moments of everyday joy using sound?

One of the most iconic musical moments of this pandemic has been the way New York City and other cities around the world have erupted into cheering and clanging of pots and pans at 7:00pm. Or the way neighbors have played music for one another through their windows and from their balconies and doors worldwide. These sonic celebrations have bolstered our spirits, brought strangers together across city blocks and become rituals rich with meaning. It is a perfect example of how sound and purpose collide in precious moments.

Out my apartment window, I hear my neighbors’ call and I respond in kind, and for a few minutes each day we connect. These sounds signify: I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re going to be okay. Ultimately, sound is only as meaningful as the intention behind it.

How will your brand sound in a post-pandemic world?

Contact Us