Inside Mastercard’s ‘10-layer’ sonic branding plan

Three years after the debut of its sonic logo, the company has a number of audio assets that make up its sonic brand, including an album of original songs.
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

It’s pretty easy to picture the Mastercard logo. The brand’s now-iconic red and yellow circles have been around in some form since the ’60s, and given the company’s global presence, it’s likely the average person has seen that image plenty of times by now.

In 2019, the company dropped the “Mastercard” text from its logo, saying that it “can now stand on its own.” That same year, it introduced a signature sound to its branding for the first time, Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer, told Marketing Brew, laying the groundwork for it to eventually stand without any visual assistance at all.

Three and a half years later, Mastercard is four steps into rolling out a “10-layer” sonic branding plan that started with one melody and now includes an entire album of original songs.

“Our sonic brand is one of the highlights in the company in terms of how marketing has actually created a new way for people to understand, appreciate, and connect with our brand,” Rajamannar said.

Brands like Tostitos, Panera, and more have created sonic logos within the past year, perhaps signaling the rise of audio as an increasingly important element of branding. As more companies hop on the trend, Rajamannar pulled back the curtain on how Mastercard has implemented and tested its audio assets over the years.

Back to the start

Mastercard, in part, has Alexa to thank for its sonic branding. When Rajamannar started using Amazon’s voice assistant, he realized he was making purchases with his Mastercard, but that “there is no visual real estate” involved in that experience, he said.

That revelation, along with the fact that smart-speaker adoption was “exploding,” as well as the rise of wearables like the Apple Watch, convinced the Mastercard team that it needed a sonic identity, Rajamannar said.

“Human beings are generally blessed with five senses,” he told us. Until then, Mastercard had been “really communicating our branding only through the visual assets.”

Rajamannar didn’t want a jingle alone; he wanted a “comprehensive audio brand,” he said. So when sonic branding agency amp pitched a playbook for a “flexible sonic identity” that could spin out into different audio assets for different situations, Rajamannar was “so excited that he called the CFO directly,” said amp founder and global CEO Michele Arnese. Amp has provided sonic consulting for Mastercard ever since.

Peeling back the layers

What do onions, Shrek, and the Mastercard sonic brand have in common? They all have layers. Mastercard’s sonic brand has 10, and though the final six remain a mystery, four are already in use.

The first layer is the sonic melody, which had to be “memorable,” “hummable,” and “versatile,” Rajamannar said. Since Mastercard is a global brand, its signature sound needed to be able to translate to campaigns around the world. That versatility was the most difficult aspect to nail, according to Rajamannar.

“Whether you’re in Dubai, or in Brazil, or in Australia, or in the US, it should feel native and natural to those contexts and cultures,” Rajamannar said.

It took two years of working with artists, sound engineers, and neuroscientists to get it right, Rajamannar said, but now, Mastercard has about 300 different versions and counting of its melody on tap for creatives to apply to any project they may be working on, thanks to a tool created by amp called “Sonic Space.” The tech behind the tool, Sonic Space, is used by other amp clients, but the Mastercard version has been customized for its brand, Arnese told us.

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“Sonic Space is an intelligent sonic asset management tool,” Arnese explained. “With this tool, all agencies worldwide in all 120 markets of Mastercard get access to hundreds of music productions that can be used to create content.”

For instance, if someone was looking for “captivating” music to go with a campaign, they’d be able to type that term into Sonic Space to bring up a list of suitable options.

There’s also a feature that enables creatives to search Spotify for melodies within Sonic Space that sound similar to other, non-Mastercard songs. If someone wanted to replicate the general vibe of “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, the AI-powered Sonic Space would show them Mastercard melodies with similar attributes, like beats per minute, Arnese explained.

The second layer, Mastercard’s “sonic signature,” is a three-second tune derived from the melody that plays at the end of all Mastercard ads, Rajamannar said. The third is an even shorter adaptation of the melody: a 1.3-second “sonic acceptance” sound. It’s made up of six notes and plays each time someone uses their Mastercard to indicate that their transaction is complete.

That sound plays at more than 235 million touchpoints around the world, according to Rajamannar, from registers at retailers and concert venues to NYC taxi cabs, Arnese added.

The fourth layer involves “embedding our sonic brand into popular songs and music” in order to further cement it in people’s minds, Rajamannar said. In June, Mastercard released “Priceless,” an album of original songs performed by up-and-coming artists from around the world.

Before “Priceless,” Mastercard found success teaming up with artists to create songs based on its melody. For instance, “Dancefreak” by Puerto Rican pop duo Domino Saints was a chart-topper in several countries across Latin America, according to Rajamannar. “Priceless” has also been performing better than anticipated, Rajamannar said, though he didn’t share any figures. Mastercard now has plans to drop one new album per year.

Measure for Mastercard

Like visual logos, it’s fairly common for brands to treat their jingles as one part of a larger campaign as opposed to measuring them on their own.

Mastercard, however, has its own “proprietary methodologies” to test its audio assets, according to Rajamannar, including its customer analytics platform Test & Learn, as well as survey research and even simulated shopping experiences that can gauge how people react to something like the sonic acceptance sound.

Amp also lends a hand on the measurement front. The agency has run brand-lift studies against Mastercard’s sonic assets, according to Vijay Iyer, CEO of amp North America, as well as measured the Mastercard campaigns it’s worked on with in-house tools like Sonic Radar, Arnese added.

Sonic Radar is designed to give brands like Mastercard a more holistic look at their overarching sonic strategies as opposed to analyzing one particular campaign, according to Arnese. It’s used to compare brands with competitors that also have audio assets, determine the tone of music in campaigns to check that it’s in line with brand positioning, and more, Arnese explained.

All this work is leading up to one thing for Mastercard, Rajamannar hopes.

“My ultimate dream will be when people listen to the Mastercard logo without knowing what it is, they should say, ‘That is Mastercard,’” Rajamannar said. “That unique attribution is our Holy Grail.”

10/18/22 update: This story has been updated to reflect that Sonic Space is used by other amp clients.

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