Sonic identity

The sonic turn

For centuries our society has relied almost exclusively on the sense of sight to spread a culture’s ideas and values. And since culture is a dynamic system, following the evolution of the elements that define it, the aesthetic and stylistic principles of visual communication have also changed.

Let’s take as an example art nouveau born between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as opposed to nineteenth-century stylistic paradigms and the imposition of an industrial aesthetic, with its linearism, sinuosity and the representation of naturalistic motifs. Futurism, the avant-garde movement of the early 1900s, influenced by wars, social and political transformation, which through its artistic movements expresses a new beauty: speed, dynamism. The rise of war propaganda and art deco, and, fast forward to recent history, pop art, hyperrealism, post-media visual arts. Brands and marketing have made these visual assets one of the most valuable resources for communicating with the public.

In the last decade, however, a new socio-cultural awareness has developed which is decisive for the enhancement of the world of sound: sight no longer totally dominates our perception or understanding of reality. In the artistic field we talk about sonic turn, but many now refer to audio renaissance.

Close a gap

The rise of digitalization, the evolution of our auditory and marketing culture has certainly influenced our way of living, perceiving, and creating sound. However, sonic branding is nothing new, it has a deep history and has made its way from ancient times to today thanks to a natural process in our brains, which associates sounds with reactions and emotions—we never stop hearing, even while we sleep we are able to perceive vital information from specific and distinguishable sounds.

But how did we come to associate sounds with brands and how is this scenario evolving?

If we wanted to really dig deep into the history of auditory branding, we would probably have to go back to 400 AD when the Roman bishop Paulinus of Nola introduced the use of bells in Christian churches to call the faithful to prayer—an excellent sound-Christianity association. But without going over millennia of history in detail, we can highlight some moments that have defined sonic identities as we know them today.

1877 – Thomas Edison invents the phonograph, the first device for mechanical recording and sound reproduction. Before that, all human musical knowledge had been passed down orally.

1890–1930 – Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, developed the concept of conditioned reflex. To sum up: a stimulus can cause a certain involuntary reaction in animals and humans. At the center of Pavlov’s experiment were the unconditional reflexes of his dogs, specifically salivation, at mealtimes. Pavlov demonstrated that by associating the dog’s meals with the sound of a bell several times, he could cause them to salivate. Salivation was therefore induced in dogs by an artificially induced conditioned reflex.

1920 – The idea of ​​spreading sound content to the masses begins to materialize. It is the first radical innovation in mass communications after the invention of printing. Two years later, the BBC, one of the oldest radio stations in the world, was founded. It fulfilled the need for a new language to interact with consumers. The rhythmic and memorable rhymes of the then jingles become the preferred marketing strategy for brands that want to attract listeners’ attention.

1950 – Thanks to technological innovations in the field of sound, soundtracks are now an integral part of every film and film composers explore sound and music as conveyors and activators of emotions, laying the foundations for modern sound identities.

1980 – French radio guru Jean Pierre Baçelon coined the term ‘la marque sonique’ after archiving, analyzing, and categorizing several radio commercials and concluding that ads with sound branding elements gained greater recognition, success and sales.

1994–95 The years that marked history. Intel debuted its famous sonic logo, the bong sound, which is now estimated to be played every five seconds around the world. Nokia launches the iconic monophonic 3310 ringtone, and the following year, Brian Eno composes—ironically on a Mac—the Windows 95 startup melody.

2003 – Justin Timberlake sings I’m lovin it which after six months at the top of the Billboard chart appears in a McDonald’s ad becoming the soundtrack for the brand’s first global campaign—even today the dynamics behind the writing of the song, which eventually became a symbol of the McDonald’s brand, are not entirely clear.

From the mid-2000s onwards, digitization accelerated the impact of innovation in the media sector: we experienced the boom of smartphones, the birth of social networks, the first voice assistants and the introduction of music streaming platforms into the lives of millions of people. Thus in the last decade a gap has arisen between the content provided by the world of advertising and the actual involvement that the public has with brands when it comes to products, services, and experiences. Today, sonic branding seeks to bridge this gap, not limiting itself to providing just a catchy jingle, but rather offering a strong emotional charge to consumers and creating a coherent experience throughout a brand’s customer experience.

Towards a new aural dimension

As we have seen, especially in the last 10 years, the changes that have taken place have significantly influenced the evolution of sound identities and their exploitation by brands, which have understood that sound plays a vital role in the ubiquity of digital media. Furthermore, today sound is increasingly integrated into everyday products—from household appliances, to cars, to jewelry—and the market for voice-activated products is constantly expanding. This brings us to our evidence: if we have always been used to interacting with objects through sight (eyes), and touch (fingers), in the future we will also use hearing (ears), and our voices. Visual images and symbols, which were previously vehicles of important messages, are slowly giving way to a new aural dimension of information and interactions, pushing brands to be more and more audible as well as visible.

The challenge, therefore, will be to know how to combine these two worlds and be able to produce sound outputs that are as pleasant as they are functional—sounds that won’t pollute an already chaotic environment that is overloaded with stimuli.

Sound identities and where to apply them

At this point a legitimate question comes up: what is a sonic identity? Unlike what we many think, the sonic identity of a brand is not its jingle or its sonic logo. Just as a visual brand identity is not a mere logo, but a set of colors, images, graphic elements and symbols, sonic identity is also a much broader set of sonic assets.

The application of these sonic assets to the customer experience is a brand’s sonic identity.

To create a quality sound identity, it is therefore essential to apply the same strategic rigor and creative thinking that underlie visual identities. Starting from the definition of sound and vocal principles, then by identifying a brand’s instruments, melodies and chords, it will be possible to compose your own sound asset, which can include: sonic logo, interaction sounds, branded soundtracks, playlists, and podcasts. Obviously, the greater the sonic assets, the more touchpoints can be covered within the experience offered. From products to experiences, from events to online platforms and social media, from shops to payment times, brands can create strong relationships with their consumers through sound identities.

For this reason, there are already many brands that, from banking to automotive, from fashion to food & beverage, are experimenting with sound identities, highlighting the importance of an aural dimension within a successful brand strategy. Emotionally involved sound has no linguistic or cultural barriers and allows you to reach everyone in a meaningful way.

Do you want to find out more about the future of sound and its applications? Write to, and our strategic think tank will be able to provide you with a unique perspective on the topic.

Dissolving gender barriers in tech

Sana Afouaiz is an award-winning gender expert, women’s advocate, and public speaker on global feminism and women’s issues in the MENA region. For the past five years, she has advised the United Nations, the European Commission, corporate institutions, and organizations on gender issues.  In 2016, she established Womenpreneur Initiative, an organization with a community of 10,000 across 20 countries, which aims to advance women in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation, and society. In recognition of her achievements, Afouaiz was named an influential woman by the World Bank. On July 17, 2020 she spoke as a role model at UNIDO’s International Online Conference “Women in Industry and Innovation,” organized in cooperation with UN Women and FAO.

You said that the cultural environment you lived in made discrimination perfectly acceptable and visible. Can you give us an example?

I grew up in Morocco, in a family of eight girls, and my sister and I have always been treated as if something was missing and that something was a man, a brother. This really hurt my sisters, who felt like we were not complete, we felt guilty because of our gender. I let all this make me stronger and inspire my work.

Do you still experience gender-based discrimination?

I do, every day. For instance, I’m quite direct, and in the culture I grew up in it is men who are supposed to be assertive. Women should rather be soft and sweet, and therefore they feel limited in terms of exploring discussions at a certain level. This reminds me a bit of the time when Aristotle and other eminent ancient thinkers would say that women were not capable of contributing to philosophical debate. It happened at a different time but it’s the same vision many have today.

I also face discrimination because of my age. Sometimes it is difficult for men to take me seriously when I’m looking for funds. I don’t mind people asking about my age when I am presenting a project to be sponsored but I do mind when that is the first question asked and the second is about my marital status. I don’t think men are usually asked those questions, no matter how young they are. 

In Morocco, only 5% of firms have a female top manager and only 10% of entrepreneurs are women. And in the whole MENA region, things are not any better. In your opinion, what holds female entrepreneurs back, at any level? 

Different issues come into play. And it is not the same in each country of the MENA region. In the eyes of westerners, the MENA region is perceived as one entity, but it is a very non-homogenous group and encompasses many countries, with a different history, culture, and political conditions.

If you take countries like Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia you will find that women have achieved certain rights, they are visible at some level and the lack of women’s participation in the economy is related mostly to the social atmosphere and the general mindset. 

As a matter of fact, there are a great number of female STEM graduates across the whole region. Yet, very few of them achieve entrepreneurial careers. How should this problem be addressed?

You can’t fix gender issues in the MENA region by merely giving women funds and teaching them how to become entrepreneurs, for instance. It has been done for years now and it just doesn’t work. Female entrepreneurs are still very few, they operate in informal markets and face constant discrimination. Those who are successful make it abroad, not in their country. Further problems are technical issues such as accessing the right human resources or the fact that the bureaucracy in the region is very complex. It’s a tricky process and in the end, female entrepreneurs get tired and give up. 

Another problem with the MENA region is women’s limited access to financing and most of it is microfinance. That’s why female-led startups are not thriving as they should. If we really want to support women, we should financially support their projects. With Womenpreneur we did training with some investors to make them understand the gender bias because sometimes it is internalized. The investors don’t feel like they are intentionally excluding women, but they do because it’s ingrained in their minds. 

What other factors may cause such imbalance?

A big issue is the access to resources and opportunities, which is a struggle for all entrepreneurs—men and women. We have Dubai, where you can find many huge investors and all the entrepreneurs want to go there to be funded and start their companies, but if you look at Arab startups you can see that they don’t last. 

The best example is Careem, the Uber of the Arab world. It was a huge success funded in Dubai and a product of the MENA region. But it was sold to Uber last year. The problem is that we don’t have a structured ecosystem that can help create innovative startups and make them last. 

Then you have the lack of a legal framework to explain and facilitate the creation of startups, companies, and entrepreneurial projects that could help boost the economy.

Can you give us more details about specific countries in the MENA region?

Some countries have a more developed approach than others. Tunisia, for instance, is a very good ecosystem, I find it dynamic, active, very supportive. 

Moreover, a very interesting initiative was started, when a group made of private and public institutions and entrepreneurs created a legal framework project explaining what is needed by different entrepreneurs to succeed with their startups in Tunisia. It was presented to the government and they accepted it. Today it is called Startup Act and is becoming a space that provides legal information, the right resources, the right contacts, the right business support and I think that’s amazing. 

But again, even in this space women are invisible, and female startup founders are few. But I believe in Tunisia’s effort to change that.

In 2019 Womenpreneur went on tour to map and visit the female entrepreneurial talents of three countries: Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan. Did you get new ideas or find new starting-points from this journey?

It was an amazing tour, we also did a policy paper study and roadshow events in each country. We traveled to different cities, meeting female tech entrepreneurs who developed interesting startups and companies, who raised huge funds inside their countries and have half of their offices across different countries, especially in Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.  

We have also conducted surveys with many women entrepreneurs in different countries, and we had meetings with experts from the financial sector, the public sector, and the government, to really have an overview of the baseline for women in tech. Afterwards, we published a document recommendation that also provides interesting propositions to improve the ecosystem for women in the region and I think it’s one of our tour’s highlights. 

Through our tour we connected more than 2,000 people and published engaging content through our media platform, reaching out to more than 500,000 people.  

Many businesses have been disrupted by Covid-19 and you are trying to share your experience through webinars and online events. Can you tell us more about your support for women entrepreneurs from the MENA region during the pandemic?

The first thing we did was set up an online space for women to access information and understand what they could do in the short term to revive their businesses and initiatives. 

Meanwhile, we’ve been running a research study in the MENA region about the impact of Covid-19 on women at different levels: social, economical, and political. The research was run by our experts and through that, we developed different possible projects we are going to implement in the region. One of them is a program dedicated to supporting female entrepreneurs in understanding how to cope with the crisis. The program has been finalized and we are going to start it by December targeting women from 10 countries in the Mediterranean. 

We have also launched Generation W, an online six-month acceleration program to support women who are impacted by Covid-19, to help them find a job or develop a project. We’ve seen that the pandemic has heavily impacted the job market and it has created a lot of unemployment, 80% of which is affecting women. 

We focused on providing women with high-tech skills, and this will make it easier for them to find a new job. The program is ending at the end of November with a total of 140 activities developed with more than 20 national and international partners. 

How will developing tech skills help those women through the crisis and possibly afterwards?

Coronavirus has heavily hit the economy but we’ve also seen that a lot of jobs are not necessary anymore. The digital revolution is rapidly changing our economic systems. During the outbreak, robots have been used to clean hospitals in Japan, and unfortunately, that has cost many people their jobs. But robots have also been used a lot in the medical field. 

Coronavirus is just one of the many crises we’re going to live through and women may always be the frontline victims. That’s why we need to help these women acquire tech skills to survive and this is something we do through advocacy and lobbying, also advising international organizations. Women have been the face of Covid-19, they’ve been the ones saving people, from nurses to doctors to food providers, and it saddens me how different countries try to manage the crisis. When you see that there is no budget dedicated to women, even though they represent more than 50% in each country across the globe, it does say a lot. 

Pivot power

Failure. Failing to achieve your intent, not accomplishing your desired goal. In essence, having an idea and not being able to implement it. It’s frustrating and hard to accept, to the point that the fear of negative consequences often dampens the innovative drive of many individuals and organizations. Held back by the fear of failure.

Sometimes, however, missing a target can be a great stroke of luck because perhaps you miss the first one, but you score a bigger one right beside it, or because that mistake has repercussions that enable you to achieve something extraordinary. This must be why people sometimes let themselves go and take risks anyway, and organizations say they want to foster a corporate culture that celebrates error and failure. At least in words.

I wonder if Dharma Jeremy had the same opinion. He was born in Canada, raised in a log cabin without running water and electricity, and later became a computer enthusiast with a master’s degree in philosophy. While playing a video game, he got a crush on a girl who he never got to meet, a circumstance that probably led him to become passionate about the phenomenon of interactions in virtual spaces. 

In the early 2000s, just before the dotcom collapse, he decided to found a startup to develop a game that had no real purpose, except that of helping people interact: and in fact, he called it Game Neverending. The idea was inexplicably unsuccessful, but before shutting down the startup, he drew on a part of the technology that he had developed and created a concept in which people exchanged boxes of photos and then commented on them. After all, this, too, was a social interaction that was not very different from a game that has no real purpose. The idea took off, and within a matter of months, it attracted Yahoo’s attention, which acquired it for a few tens of millions of dollars.

After working at Yahoo for a few years, Dharma Jeremy decided that big business was not for him: too much politics and too many delays, and too little growth. He left and decided to launch another massive game without a real purpose—only it was much nicer and better looking than his first one. This time he thought big; he raised a lot of funds from Venture Capitalists and put together a strong team of game animators, designers, and developers for another shot at what he had failed doing the first time.

But this second attempt didn’t work either. The game didn’t catch on, even if it did build up a small community of diehard gamers. But in order to work together, the team developed an internal chat system that changed the way a team worked together, exchanging messages and documents. After all, this is also a form of social interaction that is not very different from a game that has no real purpose. 

When they shut down the game project, they realized that they wouldn’t be able to use their communication tool anymore, and the fact that this displeased them made them think that maybe they had something in their hands that could capture a market. They asked their venture capitalists if they could use the remaining funds to turn their prototype into a product. They pivoted their focus to the new product and fired 80% of their employees; in style, however, helping them swiftly find new jobs. After a short while, they launched the product and turned it into one of the fastest-growing corporate software applications at the time. In just a few months, the company reached a billion dollars in market value, went public after a few years, and is now worth $16 billion. Not bad for a failure.

Dharma Jeremy Butterfield changed his name to Stewart at the age of 12. Now he is a charismatic CEO, as well as a pleasant and engaging philosopher as he tells his stories. In his interviews, you can see that he has connected the dots of his experiences and that his successes result from his mistakes and failures, but not everything happened by chance. He says that he has always been guided by his passions and his sense of responsibility towards colleagues, investors, and end-users. And following these guidelines, he tried and changed until he found a solution.

By the way, the two failures that Butterfield turned into successes are called Flickr and Slack.