Co.Design

The Next (Sound) Wave In Branding: How AT&T Created Its New Sonic Identity

Sonic branding expert Joel Beckerman was tasked with designing sounds to signify "safe," "connected," and "possibility" on AT&T phones. Here’s how he went about it.

Samsung phones make Samsung noises. LG phones make LG noises. But now AT&T wants all of the phones on its plan—no matter their manufacturer—to sound the same.

Starting in April, the brand began rolling out a sonic makeover. There’s a new AT&T ringtone, a new AT&T startup sound, and a new AT&T ringback tone. Works in progress include a "sound of safe" lets customers know security protection is engaged, a "sound of success" that signifies completion of a task, and a "sound of connect" that tells users their phones have signal. The idea is to remind customers that they’re having an AT&T experience even though they’re using devices from various manufacturers. With the exception of Apple devices, all AT&T phones manufactured after April will include these type of new tones.

A firm called Man Made Music designed the sounds to match a sonic logo and anthem they also made for AT&T.

Man Made Music founder Joel Beckerman says sound has earned a more important role in branding as it becomes more central to customers’ experiences with devices. "Probably the one example that everybody knows is when you send email from an iPhone, there’s a little sound," he says. "It’s the same on desktops, same on a laptop, same on iPad."

The process of designing the same sonic unity for AT&T was more like visual branding design than you’d expect. It started with market comparison analysis, brainstormed possibilities, and a focus group. "We don’t ask people, 'What do you think of the sounds?'" Beckerman explains. "What we do is put the sounds in the devices, and then ask people, 'How are the devices to use? Is it fun, is it easy, is it hard? What part of the experience is difficult for you?' And then we’ll map that against research where people have the devices and there is no sound." The key is to make sure sounds fit in with what people expect from a brand while also emoting the brand’s personality.

Once the sounds are right, the silence—what Beckerman calls the "white space" of sonic branding—needs to be correctly tuned, too. "[Sound] is the cayenne pepper in the sauce," he says. "If you put just enough in, then it’s a fantastic experience. If you put in a little too much, then all the sudden the sauce is just awful. "

Joel Beckerman will speak at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored conference in San Francisco this week.


Correction: A previous version of this article quoted an employee incorrectly citing an AT&T brand recognition study.

[Image: Audio level LED’s via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • iV

    It's encouraging to see the recognition of audio branding work that focuses not on the audio assets themselves, but also on the strategic analysis, design and testing that goes into the process.

    Well done!