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This is the second of a two-part series exploring the
practice of audio branding—the use of music, sound, voice and
silence to create a connection between people and organizations. In
one, author Noel Franus provided an overview of audio branding
and identity as a practice. Here, in part two, he offers a deeper
look with a case study of Cisco and the creation of its audio
identity, developed in conjunction with Elias Arts, where Franus
was director of strategy during the project.
Most videoconferencing systems leave a lot to be desired: voice
lag, indirect eye contact and cumbersome interfaces can leave
participants feeling like they're stuck in an endless series of
jump-cuts with colleagues on Mars.
TelePresence jumbo screens.
Cisco's TelePresence is a very different, and most would say,
better experience; not only do its jumbo-sized screens and
strategically placed microphones make conversation seem natural for
parties on both ends of the conference, but starting a TelePresence
meeting is remarkably simple: push one button and your conference
If you're using TelePresence, you're made aware of that
graceful, time-saving moment because of the product's sensory
feedback; today, that's a visual prompt, right there on the screen.
Soon, the TelePresence ready-prompt will be reinforced with a
brand-based audio cue. In this case, the sights and sounds will act
in dual roles—those of experiential communicator (i.e., “you're
ready to go”) and brand identifier (to indicate this is a Cisco
product). Although visuals have reinforced brands for ages,
branded, functionally appropriate audio is relatively unexplored
Cisco's logo says audio.
Sound design in products is certainly nothing new. And in one
sense, this incremental improvement is just a small adjustment of
the audio interface. But Cisco sees this as just one leaf in a much
larger forest. The global technology company is building its first
brand-based audio identity system—an intentional effort to use
Cisco's signature sound as a means of communicating its brand
across multiple touchpoints in ways that visuals cannot or do
Like most Top-50 BusinessWeek/Interbrand–ranked firms,
Cisco communicates in traditional and interactive media:
television, events, software, web, videos, podcasts, etc. One of
the things that make Cisco unique, however, is its ubiquity; it's
the service provider behind millions of teleconferencing sessions
daily. The company has an installed base of 10 million IP phones
(and growing) in homes and offices worldwide. Add its WebEx and
Linksys offerings, and you sense the entirety of the Cisco
brand—and the opportunity for brand-based audio assets to support
What those assets will achieve is something that every
brand-focused organization appreciates. “The Cisco audio identity
increases brand linkage and adds emotional depth across these
touchpoints,” says Monique Mulbry, Cisco's senior director of brand
strategy and identity. “This is a tool for reinforcing that the
technology you are interfacing with is Cisco technology, especially
among our core customers and end users.”
“What does your brand sound like?” is one of those questions
that leave most of us scratching our heads, simultaneously dazed
and intrigued. “How would I be able to judge that,” you might
The most tempting route to answering this might be to look in
your own music library to check out what's cool. It's also a
mistake. As much as you dig U2, Bob Dylan or Coldplay, your company
or client hopes you know the difference between your personal taste
and the needs of the brand.
Cisco, fortunately, knows very well what it is, what it does and
why it matters: Cisco brings people and technology together to
enable the human network. There's no gray area with the
brand—everyone inside the organization is clear on the company and
This clarity of vision helped our Cisco and Elias Arts team
focus on the next challenge of defining what the Cisco brand sounds
like. And that's a challenge that must be defined by strategy. In
this case, the strategy leveraged the following exercises, among
The final piece of the strategy puzzle involved plotting the
conceptual direction of Cisco's sound. Elias Arts developed audio
moodboards to serve as a compass.
Audio moodboards are similar to moodboards used in concepting a
visual identity. For this project, the Elias team pulled a number
of songs and sounds to help Cisco collaborators zero in on (at
least on a conceptual level) what Cisco would sound like.
Judging moodboards can be tricky; sure, you need to like what
you hear, but more importantly, it has to work for the brand. It's
critical that each reviewer keep brand values and prior findings
top of mind when judging the audio clips that are heard in a
Those clips that survived our reviews and refinements are those
that point the way for the original compositions to come—and
eventually everything audio that represents Cisco.
With the moodboards complete, the next step was to create
original, proprietary compositions that reflect both the sound and
the spirit of the moodboards.
Cisco's specific need (that would emerge from the original
compositions) was a short, proprietary identifier—a signature, in
this case—that identifies the brand in melody, rhythm and timbre
across many of the company's touchpoints.
While this may seem process-heavy, the alternative is to wing it
with a cheap keyboard and a copy of Apple's GarageBand. That's a
risk no serious brand can afford. Here's why:
Elias Arts' composers created a number of original compositions
that reflected both the strategy and the moodboards; as a team
Cisco and Elias Arts honed in on selections that aligned closely to
Cisco's values and attributes, and a collection of assets were
blessed—with the Cisco signature approved by CEO John Chambers.
The final steps in launching Cisco's audio identity are
implementation and optimization, starting with the creation and
internal publishing of Cisco's usage guidelines, and continuing
with brand training and evangelization.
The wheels for this audio identity are in motion and a number of
touchpoints—television advertising, online video, events and
products—are now in play. But it's important to acknowledge that
the real brand value is created when the identity is leveraged as a
system rather than a collection of scattered, individual parts or
nifty sounds that come and go with a campaign or temporary brand
program. This has been Cisco's vision from the start, and it has
been exciting to watch it grow.
Every brand on earth has a visual identity. Franus explains how sound, much like good visual or industrial design, also conveys value and strengthens brand reputations.
Section: Why Design -
branding, identity design, students
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Section: Tools and Resources -
INitiative, in-house design, collaboration, project management
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