2020 has begun, in marketing terms, with the thrilling news that Mastercard has released a single (Merry Go Round) that "builds upon Mastercard’s sound architecture in a way that gives new meaning and purpose to the brand". This bold initiative has already been described by Vice as a "dumbass project". Is that fair?
My favourite David Ogilvy quote has always been that "the best ideas come as jokes". Presumably, if he’d been writing in 2020, he’d have said that the best ideas are born dumbass. He did not, of course, say that all ideas born dumbass are great. But some at least are – so let’s keep an open mind.
It’s certainly not a joke for a brand to have a great tune, sting or sound architecture. British Airways, Intel, McDonald’s and Audi are just a few brands to have used sound very effectively and memorably. Familiarity makes brands easier to buy, as Byron Sharp has repeatedly pointed out, and a memorable sound can help build that familiarity.
So can a whole range of other devices – a logo, a name, a colour palette, a line, a spokesperson, a scent, a behaviour. The world of those devices is in constant flux. It’s harder to embed a tagline than it once was, for example. Many brand logos have needed to adapt to ecommerce environments and embrace the motion-filled possibilities of mobile. Mastercard has understood this particularly well, progressively simplifying the brand’s visual expression to work powerfully on everything from watches to perimeter boards.
In this changing world, sound is definitely the familiarity device du jour. Despite some concerns, more than 40% of people expect to have a voice-controlled assistant in their house in the next five years. Podcasts have boomed and, in some cases, driven traffic to the associated radio property. A good brand sound is highly valued right now, as Colin Mitchell of McDonald’s acknowledges: "In the last couple of years, we've looked at the five-note [sound] afresh and realised just what a jewel it is – particularly in the new world, where audio branding will be so important." Sound matters.
Of course, that still doesn’t quite remove the faint air of absurdity from releasing a brand single that is apparently the forerunner of an entire album. If, like me, you’re one of the (at time of writing) 13,980 YouTube viewers (mostly agency people or employees, no doubt) who have sat in front of a static Mastercard-coloured cloud and listened attentively to part of a Mastercard-branded single, you do tend to wonder how life brought you to this particular juncture.
But there’s no point in overthinking here. As Mastercard’s own chairman has pointed out, digitisation is likely to enable singular leaders to pull ahead in many markets. Launching a brand single doesn’t hurt anyone, it gets people talking and it conveys dynamism, confidence and a sense of humour – qualities that can help imbue a brand with a sense of leadership as much as, say, a politician.
So maybe not so dumbass after all.
John Shaw is chief strategy and innovation officer at Superunion