In this series, DLMDD’s Jed Taylor journeys into the minds of industry leaders across ad-land and brand-land to find out how we can all exploit the powers of music, sound and sonic branding.
DLMDD Meets #2
Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer
@ Mr President
J – Firstly, could you just tell us a little about who you are and what you do?
N – Yes, I am the Chief Strategy Officer and founder at Mr President. We founded Mr P about 8 years ago, you’re into your second year, I remember those days very well!
I come from a planning and strategy background, been doing it for 20 plus years at a whole variety of agencies. I very much grew up in the digital Wild West, and that was my baptism on how to build brands in a digital world. As my skills developed, it became apparent that all brands should be designed for the holistic way in which they exist in people’s lives.
When we set up Mr President, it was to create brand defining ideas which can sit at the heart of a brand or business that are able to touch every part of the business rather than just the advertising comms.
J – How would you describe your lived experience of sound and music, at any point in your life, personally or professionally?
N – Alright now, this is geeky, but here goes! The reason I got into advertising was because of music in ads from the 80’s. My dad had one of those old school Dictaphones with the little tapes and I used to steal it and I would sit there and wait for my favourite adverts to come on and I would record them….so I would have these endless little mini tapes of my all my favourite jingles!
So much of advertising in the 80s was music based, and I just adored it, so I collected them…I did it for years in a weird sort of odd way. I think it was always from that basis in music that my initial love for advertising emerged.
J – Do you think the relationship between music and brands then has gone backwards?
N – Yeah! We’ve completely f$%£^£ forgotten about it! I have this debate with my team all the time. To me, a brand is something that is understood viscerally, it’s not something that you can plot and write down and come up with some adjectives about, that just never works with people.
When we’re trying to explain what a brand or a brand defining idea is to our clients, we write it as a story, because it’s far easier to tell a story that conveys emotion, personality, behaviour and the like, than if I just list off some values like Human! Innovative! Progressive! In a triangle and expect everyone to be able to know what the hell to do with that.
When I look back at all those brands that were formative to me like Club and Cornetto and Um-Bongo, these were classics of music that just conveyed the personality and style of everything about that brand…these are still stuck in my head 30 years later! I still remember having such an embedded fondness and familiarity for them after all these years.
Music just isn’t used in the same way now. To me, music is often an accoutrement, dusted expensively over comms; how many more people can stick Kanye West’s Power over an ad and feel satisfied with it the track is “cool”, memorable and says something about power that might in some way be relevant to a car ad, perfume ad or whatever the hell they want to sell. But there’s nothing distinctive about the brand’s style or personality that comes out of it. Nothing of permanence. I feel like we did it better back in the day….when I was nothing to do with it!
J – Having done a little bit of digging through your previous work, I noticed what I could only describe as sonic branding in reverse, if we take brand-derived ideas and challenges and turn them into sound, then the work you did with Classic FM could be regarded as the opposite. What was the inspiration behind this work where you took a purely sonic experience and turned it into something you could look at and read?
N – I’ll admit that the Classic FM work was creatively-led, rather than being strategically-led. The idea came from this brilliant bit of creative insight that everybody intuitively knows so many pieces of classical music, we just don’t know the names of them.
Classical music surrounds us – from films to background music to something playing in a foyer somewhere. We’ve all got that fundamental appreciation of classical music, but there is a weird reverse-snobbery that makes people dismiss the genre and think it is just for pensioners and posh people.
The realistic truth is that most people know most tunes, they just don’t know the names and that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. The job of our comms was to make Classic FM feel accessible for everyone.
J – So its kind of saying “you’re not stupid for not knowing what its called”?
N – Yeah! Most of us don’t have the language really to describe music. Everyone can hear it in their heads, or they can picture it as a scene, “the slinky lady moving gracefully into the bar and ordering a drink” or “The-cowboy-arriving-on-a-white-horse”, but I don’t know what the name of it is and I certainly couldn’t request it!
J – We know that campaign was tremendously effective and the piece of creative insight it was based around is brilliantly relevant, distinctive and entertaining, but back in the world of going from a brand to sound, do you think these sorts of insights can lead sound and music to solve brand challenges in the same sort of way?
N – With Classic FM we were solving a music challenge with a brand. But doing it the other way round? Where to start? I’d like to do it, but it just isn’t one of the talents I possess. I don’t think many of us see sound as a problem-solving tool. Especially those of us who are very un-musical human beings.
That’s why sound is so often used as a blunt executional element in comms, rather than as a fundamental to the brand itself.
It brings to mind the TripAdvisor work that has come out of the US. The ads featured this odd British-accented owl which always sounds a little weird when it comes over this side of the pond, but anyway, its interesting because at the beginning and end of each spot there is a loud, sonic slap round the face. All because the problem they faced was that people weren’t paying attention to their advertising.
So the thinking was, if we punch them just as the ad begins and make it as annoying as possible, then people’s brains will prick up and all of their response figures for attention would go through the roof. It’s a very flat answer to the problem, it doesn’t say anything about the brand and doesn’t relate to the story that is trying to be conveyed, but I suppose it did solve a problem and at least shows that there is an important role for sound in communications problem solving.
J – A blunt answer no doubt, but probably quite apt, there isn’t much of a blunter problem in advertising than simply trying to get people’s attention. Direct Line I would imagine is kind of the same, big annoying sound to get your attention because no one out there is dying to talk about insurance, but too late, we have your attention now!
N – You know, I would just much rather sometimes we were really frank about it and just opened a piece of advertising with a fart or something. It gets your attention; might make you laugh and now you’re ready to listen to someone telling you about life insurance or something like that. But to answer your question, the framework for strategically trying to respond as to why you need something to sound a certain way in a certain place doesn’t really exist, nor is it at the forefront of most people’s minds when they have so many other problems to solve that they are more familiar with solving; it often ends up becoming a purely executional decision at the end.
J – On to a slightly different topic, brands often seem to be towing a line in the way they reference culture that acknowledges our identity and what various expressions of culture outside of branded spaces mean for us. How important do you think it is that sonic brands fully acknowledge the way we listen to music for personal reasons and not see the music brands use and the music people actually listen to as different beasts?
N – We all reference everything in culture to find what represents us and who we are as a human being. It should be precisely the same for a brand. The whole palette of culture should be coming together to form a three-dimensional version of who they are. But the problem is that most brands end up in the cultural “grey”, rather than a space that reflects something truly interesting or distinctive about them.
Brands are so often designed by committee, by slightly fearful people. After all there’s a lot of people to please, there’s a lot of money involved and you can end up with this generic soul at the heart. I see everyone ends up with the same 3 words in their brand triangle because it references what’s important in culture right now. Sustainability, authenticity, humanity. Great, but they are also the same as everyone else.
I think brands do that sonically too. The fact that plinky-plonky ukulele music is the one defining sound of so many brands is telling. It is the least offensive sound that everyone can think of. Giving the brand a little bit of soul, a bit of humanity and warmth. But that’s bollocks because you end up with a collection of brands which are all just existing in this same space with this same sort of mediocre middle to it.
I have more respect for brands that are going “you know what, I’m going to use fucking metal and why not and that is who I am going to be”. Our friends down the road at Uncommon are doing some fucking wonders at the moment with sound in their advertising. The first spot they did was for OVO and for that they used proper, unsanitized metal music because that ad is about making people get really fucking angry about Trump and the climate because anger is what we need make people do something about it all.
They took OVO from being this lovely, cuddly brand and gave it some balls and some angst and it’s like…now I care!…now I’m listening! Now the brand is really starting to stand out and show some purpose, and a lot of that came from the fact that they were willing to stick heavy metal in their advertising which is so contrasting, differentiating and the opposite of corporate, sterile brand music.
J – That example brings about an interesting question around branded sound vs campaign executions. From campaign to campaign, the visual assets surrounding OVO would generally not change, they would be locked as part of a consistent brand that is flexible enough to be represented by several campaigns each with their own tone of messaging – in that sense the brand is locked. But if we look at the way they sound, the use of metal in their advert probably wouldn’t exist in other touchpoints or others comms. So we can see that the way they sound is much more open to counterpoint, inconsistency and radical change from one campaign to another. Brand consistency often seems to be overlooked when it comes to sound…
N – Yeah, that I agree with. I worked with OVO a number of years ago during their early days when they all about fluffiness, flowers and light and happiness. All the people who work for OVO are genuinely really nice people. So I can totally understand that what they created there was an amazing campaign branded moment that stands out, is relevant and people are going to respond to it, but that is not a fundamental bit of branding that reflects who they really are.
OVO can’t remain an angry brand forever and when I’m with OVO and they are providing me with utilities and I need to call them for some reason, are they going to pick up the phone be all thrash metal with me to keep the brand consistent? No, because that wouldn’t be right and it wouldn’t be them.
J – Slightly off the topic of sound and music but relevant to brands, after all, that’s why you’re here: what do you think are the key ingredients that make the most successful brands meaningful and relevant to people in a general sense? Of course, this is an enormous and very open ended question, but speaking from experience, what has stood out to you?
N – Honestly, I don’t feel like most brands are that meaningful and relevant to people. The whole construct of brands in people’s minds is a fucked-up mess, it’s a glorious mess which is sort of coloured by so many different elements. However, the most successful brands have a core truth that everyone can believe in. So even though we all have our own interpretations and perceptions of a brand, there is some consistency and cohesion in that truth.
That’s why we talk about Brand Defining Ideas at Mr President. They give us a truth told through a story that is open-ended and open to interpretation through individual’s own perception.
Look at the work we did most recently with Metro Bank for example. Do you know what people like most about Metro Bank? Its people. They’ve just got really nice people. People who are good with people. That is it. It really is. And If you can just get out there and tell everyone that Metro Bank has the loveliest of people, and when you meet them you’ll go “oh, I really like you!”, that’s all they need to know to convince them on what the brand is all about.
There is of course many tiers and tales that come under that, but the reality is that brands fundamentally exist in very simple forms in people’s heads, which is the only bit that needs to be codified and kept central; the additional nuance and complexity and mess that comes on top can be left to be built by the person themselves and will always differ depending on the context and on what is in their head already. Keep that core central brand consistent and it becomes the filter through which complex and more intangible values surrounding the brand can form. That’s what makes brands relevant and meaningful.
J – Nick, it’s been great chatting with you. We’ve covered some interesting points on the intersection of brands and music, and whilst not in the context of what we might deem “sonic branding” in its most traditional sense, having your perspective here has only gone to show that this relationship goes far deeper than just a piece of music and a logo. The world of brands has known this for a while, and conversations such as these I hope will reveal this to be the case for music and sound as well. Thank you!
N – Pleasure Jed, thank you!!