The Sound of AmericanExpress.com

September 24, 2008

There has been a great deal of interest over the past decade or so in “audio branding”.  A short-scale of notes or a “jingle,” as it’s been called since the dawn of advertising, can be a powerful tool to help create an imprint of a brand in a consumer’s mind.  Audio brands such as NBC’s venerable three bell-tones or Intel’s four-pulse signoff are as recognizable as their logos.  

It appears American Express is the latest to “sound out” its brand with the addition of some “start up” notes on its website homepage.  The credit card giant is forging into some new territory here – to the best of our knowledge, no other major brand is currently using audio branding on its website.  The web is an interesting place to experiment with audio branding because it is both a brand advertisement and a conduit for consumers’ ongoing interactions and relationship with the brand.  In contrast, NBC and Intel use their audio brands in much more controlled messaging environments.

Many questions arise when we think of using an audio brand on a company’s website or in an interactive environment. Distinctive startup sounds are very familiar to those using Windows and the Mac. For many users, they may signal the start of a productive day and reinforce daily companionship with the product.  At the same time, they’re often encountered as part of a “reset” process during frustrating moments when the operating system has become choked. What will visitors to a website feel when they encounter a startup sound each time?  Will it be a pleasantly benign brand-builder or could it become associated with an experience of checking a balance every month (an unpleasant experience for some)?

Will it help deepen associations with the good attributes of the brand or does it risk being uncontrollably linked to bad experiences a customer may have with a brand’s website?

Catherine Colman, an Interactive Experience Director at CoreBrand, notes that American Express has some work ahead to make their site more intuitive and easier for consumers to navigate. “Their ‘Personal Cards’ navigator is very slow to load and makes it very difficult for consumers to compare cards and choose the one right for them,” she comments.  “Is it a good idea to link a brand sound with that experience?” she added.

Using an audio brand on a website is a very compelling new idea, and we applaud American Express for taking the leap and experimenting with this new concept. That said, we’d also recommend that companies make sure the user experience is fully optimized before attaching something as indelible as an audio brand to their website.

Footnote: According to CoreBrand’s BrandPower continuous brand measurement study, American Express’ familiarity, favorability, overall reputation, investment potential, and brand power have been increasing steadily since 1999. The only attribute on the decline is perception of management, which has been dropping since early last year. Even with this attribute in decline, the American Express brand overall has still grown respectably over the past decade.

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