Analyzing the Sounds of Super Bowl Spots and Which Brands Won on the Audio Front

This article was originally published in Adweek.

The Super Bowl is one of the very few times in the calendar year when marketers are guaranteed to have consumers’ attention. Not many other events gather hundreds of millions of viewers in front of their TVs, eager to watch not only the game itself but the big ads, which have come to gather an almost cult-like following.

To make the most of their spot in the Big Game, each of these ads have been visually perfected to the last pixel. But how many have given similar thought to the other side of the sensory coin: sound?

From an audio branding perspective, we will deep-dive into the various branding strategies at play during this year’s commercial breaks and reveal the other winners (besides the Patriots) who have done an exceptional job in showcasing their products and services through sound. Furthermore, they provide you tips for scoring touchdowns in your future campaigns with the right use of sound.

Use brand sound elements

Only 12.5 percent of this year’s Super Bowl spots featured an audio logo, which is very low. It is quite startling that so many brands chose to overlook such a vital branding asset when there’s a multi-million audience to address. Every yard of branding bandwidth can make the difference when it comes to an advert’s recall and, ultimately, its success.

An audio logo is the defensive cornerstone of the brand’s audio identity. The audio logo is the Tom Brady, the attention-grabber, the game winner. The audio logo is a means of conveying your brand’s values, meaning and personality in a short, simple and efficient format.

Product sounds can communicate a lot about the brand experience. From an audiophile’s perspective, Michelob Ultra provided one of the most interesting Super Bowl ads in that regard. The clever use of ASMR techniques plays to our sense of hearing and turns mundane sounds like a bottle clinking and beer pouring into a sensual listening experience. This also heralds ASMR’s debut in the marketers’ playbook, moving out of the shadows of niche internet culture to pop phenomenon.

Showcase a variety of audio assets

Audio branding goes further than the repetition of a single audio logo or a catchy brand song. An effective audio brand creates a musical vocabulary, which can be applied consistently to any circumstance through different compositions and interpretations. The different versions of the brand theme can even be played during the same advert. This is what Avocados From Mexico did excellently in their spot.

The ad consists of two integrated audio logos as fanfares and concludes with their catchy audio logo. In the minute it takes for the ad to play, this palette introduces and teaches the company’s audio identity very effectively. Moreover, Kristin Chenoweth’s distinct voice helps the brand differentiate itself in the voice category.

Efficient audio branding is not based on repeating the same jingle, slogan or audio logo. Instead, it’s a system of musical guidelines that carry the brand’s identity into each touchpoint. Just because you have a game-winning play—in this case, an excellent audio logo—does not mean you should repeat the same play each and every game without tweaks and changes to make it fit each scenario.

Choose acoustic sounds for soft values

Acoustic instrumentation and genres are great for showcasing softer values like customer-centrism, sustainability, care and relatability. Budweiser’s selection of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was used to highlight their shift to wind-powered production. There is an interesting phenomenon taking place in the use of acoustic and electronic music, which is clearly visible in this year’s advert.

It was reported last year that the sales of acoustic guitars have started to outsell electric guitars. Could this be an indication of a larger pop culture phenomenon where simpler, acoustic-based music like Ed Sheeran is gaining more mass appeal than their electronic and rock focused contemporaries? Data seems to show this paradigm shift.

Overall, the sound types in this year’s spots were highly polarized. The majority (55 percent) of the ads used solely acoustic soundscapes, while electronic sounds covered 23 percent and a mixture of both accounted for 22 percent. Compare this to last year where acoustic music accounted for only 28 percent of Super Bowl ads.

The dominance of acoustic sounds can also be attributed to the high amount of classical music that was used in ads. These spots aimed for a cinematic appeal, such as Bud Light did with their various spots. With so many brands using acoustic and classical music, Budweiser could have differentiated their adverts from the competition by perhaps introducing some electronic elements into their classical music usage.

Target audiences with sound design and nostalgia

Toyota’s spot for their new electric car Supra provides us with a perfect example of audience targeting with a design approach to both product sounds and the ad’s storyline. Electric cars make very few, if any, sounds. All the engine sounds, acceleration and gear changing have to be designed by an audio branding specialist. Toyota’s ad highlights this extreme focus on product sound design by making them a key feature of the ad.

Secondly, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” which complemented the underlying visual theme of the spot, goes the distance in targeting customers who were teens in the ‘70s. Toyota is using the iconic pop culture token to appeal to today’s middle-aged generation. Their aim is to hard sell the idea of an electric car, which has poor performing sales figures amongst this demographic. Knowing that the first Supra was introduced in 1978, the ad helps the newly electrified model create a strong link between the modern and vintage eras.

By using a strong product sound as a branding position (a classic move in the automotive industry) along with a timeless hit, they hope to expand their appeal to one of the industry’s weakest performing target groups. Conversely, Pringles, who have built a strong product sound brand presence, have done away with their trademark can-opening “pop” in this year’s TV spot.

Embrace audio branding

Brands who take a design approach on audio in their spots tend to see more return on investment. When you pay a premium for global visual advertising space, why leave half of the experience as an afterthought?

The effects of a strong audio brand reach beyond short-lived annual events like the Super Bowl. This year’s adverts showed a large increase in the amount of licensed music, which is an intangible brand asset. Once your license runs up, you either pay to use the song again, which can become costly, or you let it go and lose all the brand efforts you put into it. We see a general shift away from library music as more brands realize this and instead invest in custom-made or licensed music.

Now that the biggest names in the marketing industry have started to root for the importance of sound for brands, as Ogilvy did in their latest trend report, advertisers will have to introduce audio strategies to elevate this often neglected marketing channel to match the importance afforded to the brands’ visual channels.

When a brand’s audio and visual identities work together in harmony, they form an unstoppable, winning team. They might not win you the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but you will see better engagement, recall and ultimately return on investment from your campaigns.

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