Munich-based entrepreneur Michele Arnese creates acoustic brand identities. In the course of the interview he tells us how his agency creates a SONIC DNA, at what point artificial intelligence comes into play in sound branding, and why hearing is the new seeing.

Interview: Katja Nele Bode
Photos: Sebastian Arlt

Mr. Arnese, you make brands come alive with sound. Are images alone not good enough anymore?

Michele Arnese: Today, it's quite tough for a brand to still stand out with images. We have reached saturation. Our hearing also works much faster than our eyes. We can consciously read three to four words per second; when we listen, around eleven million acoustic bits enter our subconscious at the same time. It's obvious: You can express much more with sounds.

You invented the so-called SONIC DNA, a term that you have trademarked. Why does it describe what you do so well?

Arnese: At the beginning of a job, we look at a brand like a person from different perspectives. We identify all its characteristics and consider what their musical equivalent would be. For five or six important main concepts of the brand, we then find so-called "sound principles," musical commandments that best describe how a brand should and should not sound. Basically, we develop a sonic vocabulary for each company, which we then use to create its acoustic identity.

"We live in an acoustic world: we talk to our voice assistants, apps send us messages, we listen to podcasts while commuting. We listen to an infinite number of sounds every day. That means infinite ways to engage with a brand.“

There used to be a jingle at the end of the commercial. That probably has little to do with sound branding, right?

Arnese: Exactly, 30 years ago the sound logo was played in the last three seconds of the commercial. The connection between sender and receiver was established at that moment. Today, however, we live in an acoustic world: we talk to voice assistants, apps send us messages, we listen to podcasts while commuting. We listen to an infinite number of sounds every day. That means infinite ways to engage with a brand. Sound branding has evolved and brands need a more flexible sound strategy that can include jingles but goes beyond that.

As a consumer, it could also bother me to be bombarded with sound branding on all my channels. As a producer, do you take a critical look at this: what products do we want to sell with our sounds and where?

Arnese: It's true: consumers are being bombarded more than ever before to get excited about a product that they may not even need. But they have also never before had such freedom to decide which channel they want to be on: They can switch off at any time.

That's why the flexibility of a brand is so important to us when it comes to sound branding. We don't want to generate sound terrorism, we want to sharpen the perception of a brand's strengths alone - and only where it makes sense for the consumer.  There is nothing worse than a single jingle that is broadcast everywhere. Even a jingle that sounds the same for years cannot reach the consumers. With our idea it is like this: You always remain yourself, but evolve with the times.

Artificial intelligence in sound branding

You develop a specific sound idea but is it also allowed to change?

Arnese: Yes, we want to address different people, target groups and cultures. We create something like an acoustic body for the brand that is constantly changing its clothes. Sometimes it's dressed for a gala, sometimes for a meeting with friends, sometimes for the beach. The James Bond soundtrack is a fantastic example of this. It has worked for 50 years. Why? There is not one melody, but rather a collection of musical elements. You hear Shirley Bassey, you hear Adele, and yet you recognize James Bond. That's great magic. Two completely different artists, two styles, 40 years in between.

You stated in an interview that thanks to sound branding, brands can help shape pop culture. Is that true?

Arnese: Yes, we have succeeded in doing that. Just recently, when a new video from Mercedes was posted, people were so enthusiastic about the sound and asked about the artist. The answer was: "That's Mercedes." The song sounds so authentic because a musician put a lot of thought into the job and into the brand. This approach was also very important to Mercedes. Before it was very normal to take the newest popular song and make it part of a commercial. At first people like it but three months later the effect is already lost.

When you're part of pop culture, you also have social influence. Does that increase the responsibility of a company?

Arnese: An important topic. For the past two or three years, companies have been talking about this issue intensively: How meaningful is what we're doing? I have noticed that sound branding no longer only serves to boost consumption of a product. It can also strengthen a brand profile and emphasize certain themes.

Example: We developed the sonic identity for the men's line of the cosmetics brand Dove. In the USA the cosmetics brand Dove Men+Care combines our music not only with classic advertising, but also with content for social engagement, such as the film "Dads" (Apple TV+) on the topic of men on parental leave. The Dove sound creates a high level of recognition, while also demonstrating that the company is committed to something meaningful with its market power and the music is a strong emotional connection for this.

Once the sound principles for a brand have been established, do you have a kind of musical archive?

Arnese: We have established our own musical language over the years: We know which elements we have to shape in order to create certain emotions and how we have to mix the sound principles together. In a digital library we have stored musical examples, samples or parts of pieces of music for each characteristic.

We are now almost a tech company: We've developed software that allows our clients to access sounds based on  storytelling. If Mercedes Benz wants to produce a new film, the creative team can search our archive for tonalities within the Mercedes DNA. This is where AI plays a bigger role.

Why artificial intelligence?

Arnese: For us, it's very important to confirm our results with market research and AI. The customer should not get a sound for their brand that they "like",but rather one that objectively reflects the core of the brand.

The sound of a brand must evolve

Is there ever a situation where the customer ends up saying that they had imagined things differently?

Arnese: That never actually happens because the process is carried out with a high degree of certainty. We always develop enough layouts that you can work with and vary. But it did happen once: We had developed a fantastic sound DNA for UniCredit Bank. It worked really well until the new CEO stepped in and gave the bank a complete change of direction. So we had to do the exercise again, which resulted in completely different sound principles.

But that's the way it is: marketing departments come and go. We can now speak of a period of orientation that hardly exceeds five years. The time intervals have become incredibly short. Then it can actually happen that the sound no longer fits the brand.

What qualifications do the people who work at amp have?

Arnese: You don't have to be a componist to work with us. We all come from different backgrounds. I studied music, but then didn't work with it for a long time, although it always remained my passion. It was only when I changed careers again that I wanted to combine the skills I had developed in customer work with music. That was the birth of amp.

Over there is my colleague who studied sociology. He is a fantastic musician and leads the creative artists team. Then I have a colleague in Warsaw who studied marketing and is a great pianist. The secret with us is that everyone builds a bridge to music in their own discipline.