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How the Apple iPod Influenced Sonic Branding

America, reflects on how Apple used sonic branding to help us get used to a revolutionary new product, and to stand out...

by Joe Belliotti. When Apple announced the very first iPod 20 years ago (if you can believe it!), and said at the time that music will never be the same again, they meant it. The iPod wasn’t just any ordinary MP3 player; it was sleek, roughly the size of a cassette, but could still hold 1,000 songs with its 5GB storage, and ultimately it was just cool.

I can still remember the sound of the now-iconic scroll wheel clicks as you searched through your digital music library. Even the sound of the iPod represented what Apple stood for as a brand – a huge development in how we access and consume music and the technology that enables us to do so.

At the most recent MacBook Pro launch event, Apple debuted a great track from artist A. G. Cook which saw an incredible mash-up of all of Apple products’ iconic sounds – from the start-up ‘hum’ of a Mac, to the irresistibly addictive sound of the AirPods case clicking open and shut.

I like to think about what Apple would do if the iPod was launched today. Their current strategy of using its products and functional sounds in its advertising is a great move, and certainly inspiring for other brands. Finding your brand sound doesn’t always have to be searching for the right track – it can be much closer to home, and the equity in that sound can be extremely effective with consumers.

Reflecting on the iPod and how it completely revolutionized our relationship with music, we can uncover a lot of important lessons for other brands when it comes to functional sounds, and how music and sound is part of the everyday for consumers so it must be the same for brands.

Music consumption was changed forever

The instant accessibility of up to 1,000 songs on the iPod was hard to comprehend at the time, especially when all the music tracks could be stored in one device – no switching discs or cassettes. And this encouraged a lot of consumers to broaden their musical horizons, and be introduced to a plethora of new and other artists and genres because they had the freedom to do so now.

For brands, this was a real gamechanger. As someone who has helped brands amplify content, experiences and partnerships through music for more than 20 years, it led to a direct change in how I worked with clients. Traditionally, I’d sit with a brand and they’d always want to know what genre their brand was most aligned to. The iPod started to evolve that conversation because we realized that consumers didn’t want to live in genres. It became more about finding where a brand experience could overlap with the music experience – and that is still very exciting.

The iPod also provided the catalyst for ‘music for every occasion’. You only need to open Spotify today to see how we use music in this way. You can create a playlist for anything: songs to listen to on a road trip, music to help you study, songs to listen to in the shower… and so on. It became a gateway for brands because they could use music to help enhance a brand experience across so many more touch points now.

When Chiquita, the global banana company, asked us to help them find ways sound and music could become part of its brand experience, we placed QR codes on its iconic blue stickers and redirected consumers to five different Spotify playlists – you listen to music and eat bananas on the go, so why not? Chiquita didn’t have a huge brand personality in music and bananas don’t traditionally have a role in the music experience, but music could play a role in how people engaged with the brand and creating more of those ‘moments’ and opportunities to do so.

Utilizing Apple’s brand equity

Even back in 2001 when the iPod launched, Apple was showing very strategic, joined-up thinking. If you watch the original iPod advert, it may be a far cry from the slick creative we associate with Apple today, but we can see how considered the brand was in understanding the power of functional sounds as a marketing asset. Yes, we see and hear a man finding joy in being able to pick songs, transfer them on to his iPod and listen as he leaves the house, but you also hear the actual product – the sound of the charger going in and out, the sound of the scroll wheel and the clicks. It’s also certainly strategic that the choice of musical sounds used in the ad mimic the sound of scrolling.

The audio-first nature of the iPod shifted our behaviors: we didn’t need to always look at the screen to know what we were doing, because the sound of the scroll wheel clicks helped us navigate. This is where it's really exciting for me, when the sound of the product can become so iconic and ownable for a brand. It’s something they can put in their advertising and can transcend the need to even see the brand or the product.

This is what we try to tell brands; not only to think about music and sound more, but think about what sounds they may already have, turn that into equity, and give themselves a unique advantage, without having to do all that much. Function links to your identity, which is then distinguishable in the marketplace.

As the sonic opportunities where a brand experience can live grows exponentially, the opportunities do, too. For decades we’ve seen brands look at ways they can expand and evolve visual identities – why not think the same way about sound? Sound should be purposeful, functional, and identifiable. Have some fun, create a soundscape people can pick and choose from, contextualize it, stretch it, play around. The iPod had a clear advantage: it held the music ecosystem within its offer. But you don’t need to sell a music player to utilize the power of what a good sound and music strategy can bring – and to find those moments people want to experience with you.


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