How Brands Leveraged Audio Marketing in Super Bowl Spots

Opinion: What consumers hear—or don’t hear—affects decision-making

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We’ve witnessed yet another Super Bowl that had everything from iconic sporting moments to a star-studded halftime show to the highly-anticipated clash of creative advertising forces. As is the case with such an event, the stakes are as high for the brands on the ad inventory as they are for the players and coaches on the team sheets.

Being the top marketing event in terms of ad spend and amount of viewers, the Big Game offers a snapshot of how brands choose to present themselves to the eyes and especially the ears of the public. Since audio has become a regular masthead in the latest trend predictions, it’s the perfect opportunity to check whether brands have taken note of the medium’s potential.

Traditional brand sound elements are being dropped 

This year, only 13.6% of the ads on the spot featured any kind of brand sound elements, which sets a downward trend from 19.6% last year. This time, 6.8% featured an audio logo and 5.1% a theme song, such as the one from TurboTax. A fun song paints a picture of a brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously and can make something really unsexy and dull more enjoyable.

Product sounds were the most common brand sound element, with 29% of the ads featuring an app sound, crunch, crackle, fizz or any direct sound made by their offering in real life. Coca-Cola has always been big in this category.

Call them earworms or low-hanging fruits, but these sonic assets are easy to understand and remember. They help brands humanize invisible and trivial aspects of their identity. They are essential in fostering recognition in the long run and should be a no-brainer for every advertiser.

However, the aversion from traditional sonic brand elements doesn’t yet mean companies are going off-brand. There’s a more subliminal layer that needs addressing. For instance, are the sounds conveying the right moods and attributes?

Brands are picking up on sound design

When it comes to visuals, it’s simpler to be on-brand when you have dedicated colors, shapes, and slogans in place. Just leave out those which don’t fit. Sound, however, is unique in the sense that anything you do with the soundscape of an ad inherently becomes a branding asset, even silence. The GMC Hummer ad took great advantage of this principle:

The ad doesn’t permeate our eardrums with unnecessary clamor but uses cutoffs and the minimalistic soundscape as a means of steering our full attention to the visual message. This, combined with LeBron James’ calm yet commanding voice, fortifies the Hummer brand in an industry where we are used to measuring prestige and power in decibels.

Safety at the expense of creativity and long-term buzz

Acoustic sounds were the dominant sound type over strictly electronic or electro-acoustic mixes, with 49% of all ads going fully organic. Many of the ads drew inspiration from movies, which explains why cinematic or classical music with string ensembles have edged synth-driven styles.

This trend has stuck around for a few years now, which suggests that as global showcase campaigns go, most brands are hesitant about getting experimental and carving out stronger emotions from the sonic matter.

One might argue it’s risky to ask the audience to pay closer attention and tap into their inner selves in between the excitement of the game, the short spot and the sheer sensory cacophony that comes with the event.

According to neuroscience, though, human brains are actually quite excellent at that.

“The brain is capable of picking signal out of noise through sound than it can visually,” said Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz in 2012 in an interview with PRI. “Something that’s relevant or familiar or might be important you will pull out. If you’re in fact at a crowded cocktail party and someone says your name from across the room, you’ll hear it.”

What could brands do better

Overlooking sound puts brands in danger of coming across as a bit bland in the overall din of an event such as the Super Bowl. Without careful thought behind them, music and voice can easily come across as superimposed, which alienates viewers and mars the momentum of the campaign.

Brands should definitely deploy more brand sound elements but also avoid having them become a gimmick. Avocados From Mexico did this by integrating their audio logo into the narrative of their ad:

The things we hear (or don’t hear) shape our perception of the brand profoundly. Fostering relevance and familiarity is of the utmost importance. Sounds that don’t call up memories, confine our attention to the message or intertwine explicitly with the visual narrative are redundant.

It’s more vital to understand and execute on what makes your brand sound original than pairing ads with audio logos, trailer music or popular licensed tracks for a quick one-game fix. Those that use audio in a way that transcends the brand persona into succinct feelings are the ones to prevail when the season and championship is on the line.