Harmonics. Brand Harmonics.

Last month, Sam Smith won an OSCAR at the 88th Academy Awards for “Writing’s on the Wall,” an original song he wrote for Spectre, the 24th installment in the James Bond film franchise. “Writing’s on the Wall” is not the first James Bond title theme to win an OSCAR (that honor went to Adele for “Skyfall”), but it joins an impressive number of chart-topping and award-winning musical siblings, including ”Goldfinger” (Shirley Bassey), “Live and Let Die” (Paul McCartney & Wings), “Nobody Does It Better” (Carly Simon), “A View to a Kill” (Duran Duran),  and “For Your Eyes Only” (Sheena Easton).

From Getty Images

Photo Credit: Getty Images

The success of Bond music offers a great lesson for brands.

All of these popular title themes have a harmonic signature that is composed to complement the world famous James Bond theme (think fat guitar twanging “dum di-di dum dum”). That instantly-recognizable theme may be one of the greatest examples of sonic branding of all time. Created by Monty Norman and advanced by composer John Barry, the theme relies on four simple chords that alternate between major and minor. This pattern holds the magic that has allowed five decades of pop stars to riff on it in a contemporary and relevant way. Audiences sense a Bond theme before it has fully played out. The brand is revealed without cluttering the song. It is the true secret agent.

Many brands have learned to achieve this goal through visual means. You can sense the presence of Apple in a commercial without seeing a logo, for example. Modern visual identity systems often work harder than the logo itself. Typography, color palette, imagery and grid systems provide powerful cues that trigger our mind to credit a brand. But fewer brands achieve this goal with sound. For brands that are bold enough to employ sonic branding, most rely on mnemonics (the Southwest “bing”) and jingles (McDonald’s Ba-da-da-da-da … I’m Lovin’ It). But imagine trying to compose a pop song around these devices. You might succeed once. But could you build a legacy like Bond’s with this approach? Doubtful.

Granted, few brands have the narrative guts to inspire a harmonic signature like Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Espionage. Sex. Action. The franchise is rich in aspirational and evocative themes to draw upon musically. It would be a lot more challenging to find similar inspiration for Tide.

But in the same way that we have learned to find new life in brands by deconstructing their visual elements into component parts and then orchestrating them in a thoughtful design system, brands should explore their harmonic signature system.

Sound is a powerful emotional driver. Decades of research have revealed the strong connection between music and memory. Sound is often superior to visual cues in evoking an emotional response. A simple musical hook can summon memories of lost loved ones, first kisses or a coming-of-age moment.

Consistency is the challenge. A true harmonic signature needs to find its way into campaign after campaign. It should invade ambient elements like in-store experiences and other three-dimensional environments. It should inspire collaborations with artists. Why can’t GoPro have a harmonic signature? What about Levi’s? Oreo took a step towards developing a harmonic signature two years ago when it collaborated with the Minnesota electronic group Owl City to create the Wonderfilled campaign. There was a signature there that could have been extended. To date, it has only been reprised.


While not appropriate for every brand, the brands that can develop a harmonic signature will have more opportunities to engage with their audiences.

This signature can serve as a guideline for curating complementary sonic cues such as playlists and artist collaborations. It is no easy feat. But the benefits can be lasting. A true harmonic signature for a brand will outlive a jingle and evolve with the zeitgeist.

Feature Photo Credit: Riley Joseph via Stocksy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *