Sound Value: Creating an Audio Identity for Cisco

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 part 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 begins.

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 terrain.

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 not.

A vast opportunity

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 it.

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 a brand sound like?

“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 wonder.

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 its values.

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 others:

  1. Competitive audits. You'd be surprised by how many brands sound alike when you just sit back and listen. Our research, covering a number of competitors and like-minded brands across multiple touchpoints, helped us understand not only what other brands sound like but what they feel like, as well. Music and sound create emotional equity for brands, after all, and it's in Cisco's best interest to sound and feel as unique as it is, with no overlap from other brands.
  2. Stakeholder interviews. We interviewed dozens of senior-level executives from all parts of the company. This was critical in understanding the nuances of how the brand communicates in the marketplace and how it is received by its customers and partners. This is also a key step in growing interest and collaboration—two essential ingredients in growing a successful brand initiative in a large organization.
  3. Employee involvement. Collaboration is part of Cisco's DNA, so it was only natural that it involved thousands of employees, via intranet, in soliciting ideas on the Cisco audio identity. This was a brilliant move—it created an early understanding and awareness of the forthcoming audio identity system. Bonus: hundreds of employees submitted their own audio-sample-suggestions, which played a large role in the creative process that followed.

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 moodboard review.

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.

Compositions and implementation

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:

  1. Scalability. These compositions will influence many touchpoints. They need to be created in a way that scales for a multitude of media and contexts. Says Gary McCavitt, creative director for Cisco: “We should be able to scale our audio identity as a derivative, when appropriate, to work intentionally wherever it's heard.”
  2. Adaptability. These compositions, or sibling versions of them, will live for years. They need to be flexible enough to evolve gracefully as brands, sub-brands and business units change.
  3. Objectivity. Without a process, creative decisions can be left to personal taste, when the brand's values are what matter most.

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.

Audio identity as a system, not a program

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.