Ashwini Gangal

"It's important for us to draw a clear line back to ROI": Rajeev Raja, BrandMusiq, on sonic branding

Ranjan Kapur and Subhash Kamath are now part of the advisory board of BrandMusiq, a sonic branding outfit. We interviewed Rajeev Raja, co-founder of the firm.

Rajeev: Close your eyes, listen to this music. You'll see some imagery, it'll trigger some memories. Don't try and analyse it. We'll talk about these images afterwards.

Rajeev plays his famous metallic flute for a few minutes, while I do as told.

Rajeev: What did you see?

Me: I saw the Himalayas, green pastures, shepherds, sheep and blue skies.

Rajeev: (smiles) That's not by accident; it's by design.

What I heard was his composition built on a specific scale - the 'Hamsadhvani Raag'; titled 'peace', it invariably evokes the kind of images I saw in my mind's eye while listening to it.

A new image pops into my mind now - of Rajeev playing his flute in a boardroom, as 25 management executives seated around a long table listen. In Rajeev's world, that's what a client pitch looks like.

After spending over two decades in the advertising industry, Rajeev launched BrandMusiq, a sonic branding agency, in 2012, along with the late JS Mani. His last 'agency role' was NCD, DDB Mudra, where his pet account was Volkswagen.

Today, Rajeev runs BrandMusiq along with his business partner Ajit Varma. The client list includes brands from both traditional and younger product groups: Standard Chartered Bank, Royal Challenge, HDFC Bank, Horlicks, TV18, Tata Salt, Wonder la, Raymond, McDowell's No.1, Manipal Group, Myntra, Gold Flake and Croma.

The advisory board of BrandMusiq comprises: Ranjan Kapur, country manager, WPP India, Loney Antony, MD, Hitachi Payment Systems, Rajesh Patel, co-founder and CEO, Powerweave, a software company, and Subhash Kamath, CEO and managing partner, BBH India.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Rajeev Raja, co-founder, BrandMusiq, and flautist at 'Rajeev Raja Combine', his Indo-Jazz fusion band:

Edited Excerpts

In 2015, you said and I quote, 'It's amazing how brands don't think about what their sound is...' Do they now?

There has definitely been some incremental awareness, but I wouldn't say there's been a sea change. Sound and sonic identity have never been seriously thought of. But the media space has changed. When I was at the peak of my (agency) career, television had to be the primary medium. Today the consumer has four screens - smartphone, laptop, television and multiplex. Imagine these screens without sound. Today the importance of sound is all pervasive.

Clients pay a whole lot of money for a visual identity. But with sound, the approach is, 'Acha, television ad hai, let's create a piece of music...' That's the equivalent of saying, 'Acha, I am launching a brand so let's create a logo because I need to put it in my print ad...' Essentially, while a visual identity is seen as strategic and enduring, a piece of music associated with a brand is seen as tactical and short term. If it catches on, the brand continues to use it, but often it becomes like the Onida devil - a great property that everyone recognises, but you don't know what part of the brand it's really expressing.

Sonic assets too should evolve with time; a brand can't use a soundscape created in the 1960s with contemporary visual imagery from the new millennium.

When you started out, you went to market with a service for which there was no demand; educating the potential client about sonic branding was a large part of the struggle. Today, is there demand? Is there some such thing as a 'Mogo brief'?

Today, a lot of times when we meet clients and start presenting, they say, 'Don't preach to the converted; we understand the importance of sonic branding. Now show us what you've done...' That's progress. So yes, it is better today than it was when we started out. We've started getting cold calls. Clients are calling us and saying, 'We want a Mogo'. That's huge. The word Mogo is gaining currency. But my dream is for the word 'Mogo' to be as ubiquitous as 'USP'.

All the brands you work with have a creative agency on board. Does your presence in the room threaten them? And do brands approach you through their agencies?

A lot of our clients come to us directly... we hear directly from the marketing/brand management (teams). When it's a decision of identity (which sonic branding is), you need a buy-in at the highest level. So it's important for us to start right at the top. But once the brand owners buy into the concept, we urge them to bring all the associated teams together at the earliest stage - creative, digital, event, media planners, strategic planners...

I recall, after Vistara signed us on, we flew down to Delhi and spent two hours with the planning and creative teams at Ogilvy and presented our creds and approach... of course, the creative team will have concerns and anxieties; I've been on that side. For them it's like, 'Arey, here comes one more restriction!' So we try and demonstrate to agencies how our presence will not restrict their work, but will make things easier for them.

How so?

One of the problems agencies have today - and I know this from personal experience - is uncertainty about taking a call on music. Clients react to the jingles they (agencies) make with statements like, 'I don't like it, but I don't know why'. They say things like, 'Yeh jum nahi raha hai...'

But our process clearly lays down the guidelines for the master sound (that is, the mogoscape or sonic palette - a 90-120 second long piece of music, which takes around three months to create) for the brand.

Brands are moving from overt communication to subtle experiences. Agencies look at brands more from a communication sense, not so much from an experiential sense. With our expertise, agencies can considerably enhance their offering to clients. That's why we prefer to go to clients directly...

... as opposed to going to clients through their agencies, you mean?

Yes, (if we go through the agency) what happens is - you then try to match the sound for a television spot or a radio spot. But that's not what we're doing. We create media-neutral sound for brands. We go beyond conventional media apertures like television. We're looking at sound in packaging, retail sound, and UX and UI sound design. Once we create the master sound, we adapt it across different media.

But do clients really see your service as one that's separate from the TVC or do many still look at it as an add-on to the TVC, which you insist it isn't?

There are brands that are still heavily dependent on TVCs, like FMCG and food brands, so sometimes, they do tend to see it through the filter of the TVC... there is a 'TVC syndrome' in India.

Because it's an emerging category, it's important to be able draw a clear line back to ROI. We are looking at creating a model for sonic audit very seriously. Data analytics will be a large part of this.

Brands are now beginning to see value in the neuro-testing of sound, something they did only for TVCs so far.

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