Marketing Mavericks of Audio Branding – Tom Trones, Cisco Systems
Given the fact that sound travels faster than 700 mph and is processed quicker than light, at TreBrand we believe that sound can make a difference in the world. We also believe there is a balance that needs to be struck between creativity and strategy. To that end, audio branding is our way of helping brands think critically and use the power of sound to build brand equity.
With that in mind, our founder and chief noisemaker Jordan Stevens set off to find businesses and professionals who use sound as a key element in building their brand. Of course he couldn’t stop at just finding the companies and the people who run them, he had to learn more. In the coming weeks, we’ll feature interviews he had with the marketing mavericks who were kind enough to share their insights on how they use sound in their business.
We hope that by sharing this information you’ll understand the true power of sound and how you can apply it to your business. And hopefully, you’ll help the world sound better one brand at a time.
A special thanks goes out to everyone who shared their insights with us so freely. We appreciate your candid conversations and visions of how the world sounds.
Without any further ado, here is the first interview in our series called Marketing Mavericks of Audio Branding.
Interview with Tom Trones, Cisco Sytems
Cisco Systems is the a worldwide leader in networking and communication technology. Headquartered in San Jose, California, Cisco is home to over to over 65,000 employees globally and serves a wide variety of markets through many innovative products.
Today, I’m talking with Tom Trones who is an audio identity lead for one of Cisco’s business units. His role makes him responsible for how a Cisco product sounds across a multitude of channels and product lines. He ensures that all Cisco products sound like a Cisco product. Tom will also be a speaker at this year’s Audio Branding Congress in Moscow.
Jordan Stevens (JS): Tell me a bit about your role at Cisco Systems?
Tom Trones (TT): I was originally hired as an acoustics, software and signal processing engineer for our video conferencing systems but an opportunity to unify the audio identity for our collaboration products opened up. I think the mix between technology and artistic creativity is perfect for me, and my background as a musician, composer and producer led me to becoming the Audio Identity Lead for this business unit. We have a wide portfolio of products in telepresence systems, UC, IM clients, IP phones, Webex and more, so it is important that the user can jump from one to the other and still get a common experience of using a Cisco product.
This is perfect for me, as I can leverage my background as an engineer, musician and music technologist. Last year we made the call to keep the strategy development and production internally. We now have music and sound production facilities at the Lysaker, Norway site.
JS: What are some of the things you are trying to accomplish in your position?
TT: I’m trying to develop a consistent sound expression for our products, and this includes all aspects of the auditive user experience of the products, for example ringtones, UI, product presentations, the mechanical sounds the products make etc. We have built music and sound production facilities at our R&D site in Oslo (where I work from) and I’m now doing everything in-house. I am also trying to increase awareness of the importance of sound in Cisco, so some of my time is spent on sharing my work and knowledge on the subject with different teams internally.
I often notice people whistle ringtones right after they have been played in the background somewhere. This indicates that the tones are too intrusive and subconsciously viral, and this is not appropriate for the contexts our products are used in. Even though for example the Nokia tune is a great success story, we don’t believe that basing all our audio assets on a single melodic phrase is the right choice for our products. We are communicating an audio identity in a much more subtle way than having a hummable “theme tune”. We argue that the lack of obvious harmonic drama and an identifiable melodic theme is key to a successful ringtone for our products.
Unobtrusive ringtones will secure a better work environment and a naming convention that encourages the user to be more aware of their auditive environment. We are designing the sound set for specific contexts, and we want to guide the user to be more sensitive to their surroundings. For example, an IP-phone is likely to be used in open plan offices; therefore we should not allow the user to be able to load in his or her favorite song that easily can easily disturb colleagues nearby. In that sense, we are protecting the user from itself.
JS: You said context is important for developing a product sound, what other attributes should be present when creating a brand sound?
TT: Creating aesthetically pleasing, functional and appropriate sounds for our products is the most important job, but I think this can be done without compromising on the brand attributes. I would say that translating the brand values into a musical and auditive framework is one of the most challenging parts of the process, and a lot of musical intuition comes into play here. I think it is useful to try to explain and even to an extent quantify these intuitions, in order to convince for example a design review that there is a certain rational behind it and that they are not simply an expression of the composer’s personal taste and style.
As a generic example, say you have the word openness as a brand value. In harmonic terms, I would interpret this musically as chords without an articulated minor or major feel, using 2nds and 5ths a lot and trying to voice the chords widely to avoid any denseness. And then I could do the same for the other musical or auditive attributes like melody, timbre, rhythm etc. This is oversimplifying somewhat, and it is of course the designers ability to take these limitations and produce small works of functional art that is the true core of what we do. It is when trying to represent multiple brand values in a single piece that this truly gets complicated and some compromises needs to happen. Like I said, this happens mostly intuitively, but I think it is a good exercise to break it down like this.
JS: Do you have a specific audio style guide that you must follow? In broad strokes, what is the Cisco sound?
TT: The Cisco audio brand was developed around 2008, and our work is following the brand guidelines, while at the same time evolving it – there’s a positive feedback loop between the teams. Having the same sound experience of Cisco in TV commercials as when using a product is obviously a very powerful branding tool. Cisco climbed up to a very high 13th place in Interbrand’s most valuable brands list ($29 billion USD), and this says a lot about how important it is do a good job with brand and user experience (which I believe go hand in hand).
JS: With various user groups, how do you get user feedback to ensure you are commnunicating what you intended to in the style guide?
TT: We all use the products daily ourselves, so if something is not quite right, I hear about it immediately. We do a lot of design reviews, scenario testing and get a lot of feedback from our customers, so we know quickly if we are on the right track.
JS: Do you think music is an international language? Why or why not?
TT: I do, at least to a large extent. I think the increasing westernization of eastern pop music the last decades has made the ears of many Asians more accustomed to the western musical palette. Although the world music genre is quite popular, it has not influenced our western ears to the same degree. A lot of western ears are still not very comfortable with non-tempered, very nasal and high pitch vocals for example. In that sense, I think sticking to western musical structures, melodies and harmonicity in most cases is a safe bet if you want something to be globally accessible. With respect to instrumentation, I think the availability of well-sampled libraries of previously inaccessible folk instruments has given us composers great new possibilities. Take the use of exotic percussion, zithers and hammered string instruments for example, which used a lot in film and TV music.
JS: What were some of the challenges you faced when trying to build a sound for Cisco?
TT: As a technology company full of engineers, it is especially important that we identify with the average user that is maybe not so tech-savvy. It is really important that we empathize with our end users and try to bridge the gap between humans and technology. We cannot hope to be successful by having the best specs and only be appealing to the IT departments. We have tried to express this “humanizing technology” idea in the sound production by using high quality real instruments mixed with modern processing techniques. I have a hope that the days where ringtones are basically the presets on the newest crazy virtual synthesizers are soon over.
JS: I like the idea of “humanizing technology”. Simplicity seems to win customers these days.
Now, seeing that you have many products and a wide geographic locations to serve, how have you managed to keep everything unified as one brand?
TT: The industrial, visual, interaction and sound design are all derived from the same values, and this has made the products really come together as a whole. We have a cross disciplinary team that work between business units and are dedicated to securing consistency in all our collaboration products. This is not an easy task, as we have development happening in China, India, Norway, UK, Ireland, and US. Things like work culture and time differences are challenging as well, although I think we handle it better than most, since high quality video conferencing is pervasive in our organization. There are also some challenges with being such a huge global company – everything takes a bit longer, and there is a need for breaking down traditional organizational silos, but all in all, I think we are doing a pretty good job of it. There are some great benefits of being a big company as well; we have an incredible width of talented resources and let’s face it; a startup will not prioritize having an employee dedicated to audio branding.
JS: That’s certainly true. Now the all-important question, what results have you been able to capture?
TT: Most of the work we have done is on products still in the pipeline, but good feedback so far and an increased organizational awareness on audio branding and the importance of sound. Makes me hopeful that our customers will appreciate our efforts.
JS: That’s exciting to be on the forefront. I’ll be listening to your work when it comes out. Which begs me to ask, how do you feel about millions of people listening you your creations?
TT: It is very humbling to think about, while also being very exciting, as I have never had the opportunity to reach out to this large an “audience” before. I am at the same time aware that the primary function of the product sounds is to serve a user purpose, so I doubt that most people will be very conscious of the thought and care we put into it. The important thing is that the user has a great total experience of our products, and that it reflects well on the Cisco brand.
If you could give CMOs around the world one suggestion for building an audio brand, what would it be?
TT: I don’t know if I have one suggestion to “rule them all”, but here are some that may not be part of the audio branding consultancies strategic process:
- Hire someone knowledgeable with interest in sound to drive the development internally, and that can keep an external consultancy in check. Depending on the size of the company, it does not have to be a full time position. If you are a substantial global brand, get inspired by the way Nokia and Samsung have dedicated internal teams constantly securing consistency and evolving the audio brand.
- Check out the consultancies references and previous work
- Be thorough, but do not over think things.
- Be agile; implement and execute fast, and then adjust according to feedback.
- Consider verifying the quality of the work by an external consultancy.
- Focus on the aesthetics and production quality; don’t get blinded by fancy charts.
- Listen to the experts, and don’t rely too much on user feedback; people have a tendency to struggle with leaving their subjective meanings out of the equation. Basically, they often don’t know what’s best for them when it comes to their sonic environment. Therefore democracy is not necessarily the way to go when it comes to audio branding.
- CMO’s often think in marketing terms, which often are interpreted as the same as making catchy earworms. However, this is not necessarily applicable when brands have touch points to its users through end products, where we must take greater care to reduce fatigue and intrusion.
JS: Thanks Tom for taking the time to talk with me about audio branding at Cisco Systems. It’s much appreciated.