How Justin Timberlake rescued McDonald’s from a dumb fate

KFC, Apple and Mercedes are dumb; McDonald’s, Audi and Intel aren't. Ralph van Dijk, Eardrum's founding creative director considers why.

As we reach ‘peak screen’ (in which people can’t use screens more than they already do) and smart speakers allow us to navigate life with our ears using our voice as a remote control, marketers around the globe are coming to an uncomfortable realisation. Their brands are dumb.

They don’t make a sound. Not a peep nor a dicky bird (one for the cockneys).

Sure, they have logos, fonts, corporate colours and other visual assets coming out the waazoo, but they’re totally unrecognisable to the naked ear.

All the TVCs they’ve been running for years may have had a consistent look, but with a new voice and soundtrack for each campaign, they’re starting from scratch when it comes to the brand’s sound.

Of course, there are a handful of notable exceptions that get wheeled out whenever audio logos and ear marques are discussed. These include McDonald’s, Audi and most oft quoted, Intel. But while everyone agrees that investing in a set of consistent audio assets has provided those brands with a competitive advantage, it staggers me that the likes of KFC, Apple and Mercedes have remained silent.

One reason could be bad advice. In 2007 Mercedes did in fact adopt an ear marque that was more Sixth Sense than marketing sense. After two years of scaring the bejesus out of potential customers, they did a marketing ‘recall’ and dropped it all together. It was revealed later that their advertising agency just grabbed an existing sting from a sound library, which explains the lack of brand fit and individual sound character.

It’s another reminder that in the world of audio branding, the how makes all the difference, and there’s no substitute for experience. It’s taken us years to fine tune the way we take a brief, create an audio mood board, elicit emotions in seconds, and implement a new audio asset across every step of the customer’s journey.

When McDonald’s launched a campaign in 2003 using Justin Timberlake’s I’m Lovin’ it, it was the first time they had released the same set of ads worldwide. They would never have imagined that the “ba da ba ba ba” vocal hook would become as globally recognisable as the golden arches themselves.

Now McDonald’s are perfectly placed to exploit all the shiny new audio-based products and platforms. Given they only need three seconds of ear-time to make an impression, they’ll be able to pop in subtle reminders throughout the day – between Siri reading you the news and the weather, or as Alexa tells you your to-dos, or just before Google Home plays you that podcast.

But apart from changes in technology, the increasing pace of life and the difficulty in cutting through in a visually cluttered world, there is a more fundamental reason to define your brand’s audio DNA. Ears don’t lie. There are no auditory illusions in nature, that’s how honest our ears are, you can’t trick them. And because our ears don’t lie, our bodies respond much faster to sound, without us having to think about it.

That’s why people like auditory neuroscientist Seth Horowitz have been developing sounds that help people perform better in tests or sleep more soundly. By overlaying inaudible low-frequency recordings onto classical music, our brain responds without us even noticing.

He is also the guy that made this familiar ear marque for T Mobile.

More and more Australian brands are realising the importance of adopting a consistent audio strategy. If you’re a marketer with a silent brand trying to cut through on ever-shrinking, overpopulated screens, hopefully you’re hearing the warning bells loud and clear.

Ralph Van Dijk

Ralph van Dijk is founding creative director at Eardrum, an audio marketing agency


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