‘It could have gone horribly wrong’: HSBC launches ‘sound identity’ in next phase of global brand refresh

HSBC’s brand boss admits coming up with an audio brand was “unfamiliar turf” but that she believes the bank has hit upon a sound that “pulls together everything we stand for”.

HSBC is launching its first ‘sound identity’, the next phase of its global brand refresh, as it looks for new ways to build its brand at a time when consumers are increasingly busy and distracted.

The sound, named after the HSBC‘s brand promise ‘Together we thrive’, is a bespoke musical piece composed of seven different edits created to be relevant to the 66 markets in which HSBC operates. Created by electronic music producer Jean-Michel Jarre, it includes pieces such as ‘stadium’, which will be used at events including its sponsorship of the rugby competition Hong Kong Sevens and ‘In flight’.

The decision to launch a sound identity comes a year after HSBC refreshed its visual brand identity to focus on its hexagons in a bid to make its brand more consistent. Andrea Newman, global head of brand at the bank, believes audio was the “next natural phase” of that work but admits it was “very unfamiliar turf”.

“The reason we did our visual identity was because our brand was looking so fragmented. When you do a sound audit you realise you are in danger of getting to the same place with audio. It was very unfamiliar turf and we learnt a lot as we went through the process, but we’re really pleased with where we’ve ended up,” she tells Marketing Week.

READ MORE: ‘Together We Thrive’ – Has HSBC nailed it or not gone far enough?

Newman says she relied on gut instinct and drew on her 21 years of working at HSBC to work out if the sound was on-brand. She admits to being “incredibly nervous” when she went to Jarre’s studio in Paris to hear the music for the first time but says she could tell immediately he had “really captured the brief” and “articulated through sound this idea of thriving”.

“It could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t. We were quite loose in the brief but he got a lot of inspiration from our visuals and his experience of HSBC in the past. We knew when we heard it he had absolutely cracked the brief,” she recalls.

Because the company hasn’t done this before and we have so many platforms we are going to have to experiment a bit so we don’t go into overkill.

Andrea Newman, HSBC

Having heard the piece of work, Newman’s next job was to sell it internally. The music has already been shared with the leadership team across the group and with the marketing leads at their annual conference, with a wider internal launch happening this week.

The first time many HSBC customers will hear the new identity will be when they ring the bank’s contact centres. The music is to be the sound of its call waiting and will go live today (23 January) in 10 markets including the UK ahead of a wider roll out.

The marketing team is also working with the bank’s digital team to get the audio in its apps and it will start appearing in marketing broadcasts, most obviously a short snippet at the end of TV ads. But Newman says she isn’t being too prescriptive about when and where it is used as the company gets used to what feels right for the brand.

“Because the company hasn’t done this before and we have so many platforms we are going to have to experiment a bit so we don’t go into overkill. Do we use it on ATMs? We don’t know, we’ve got to do a trial and learn.” she says. “It will manifest itself in lots of different places but we don’t want to do a list of dos and don’ts because we’ll learn as we go.”

READ MORE: Why marketers should not neglect audio branding

Launching HSBC’s creative council

Given the key role the audio will play in ad campaigns and brand building, HSBC has also had to communicate the changes to its ad agencies globally. It has convened its creative council, which consists of the executive creative directors of all its agencies and the in-house digital creative leads, to explain the changes to them and is inviting Jarre to talk to them at the end of the month about the sound and its uses.

The creative council, which was set up a year ago, is just the latest sign of HSBC looking to improve consistency and ensure that wherever the brand shows up it has a similar look and feel.

“We are a very creative brand and we’ve always been very creative thinkers but as different parts of the business use different agencies, and we bring on more digital agencies, we needed at some point for everyone to sit together,” explains Newman. “It’s the kitchen table approach and it’s really working for us very well indeed.”

Newman says that anecdotally the brand refresh is so far going “very well” and has successfully pulled together everything the brand stands for around the central idea of the hexagon. As the second phase goes live, she will be monitoring reactions both internally and externally and “hoping for positive feedback”. And there are further plans to refresh the brand through the course of 2019.

“Music is a very personal thing but no one has heard it yet and felt we got it wrong,” she says.

“You’re probably right [that music can be harder to pin down than visual], which is why I really worry when we do our smell brief,” she jokes.