The Sound of Shell: The energy company's sonic branding is among the strongest in the world.LightRocket via Getty Images
In a world where audio increasingly shapes the consumer brand experience, Shell is emerging as a maestro.
How did an energy company that hasn’t always evoked warm fuzzy feelings come to stand with Apple AAPL , Coca-Cola, Mastercard MA and McDonalds MCD among the top audio brands across the globe? It’s a story of innovation, 18 months of elbow grease, and the belief at command central in the necessity of a unified sound that threads through every piece of messaging that has a music element.
The Sound of Shell is a suite of flexible musical assets that today comprises nine variations—from guitar-driven rock to ambient—and more than 600 iterations ranging from a full orchestral rendition recorded at Abbey Road Studios to a recently rendered holiday medley. It also includes a five-note mnemonic, which often complements its commercials.
“Nothing makes something more human than having the ability to communicate at a nonverbal level. And therefore just having a visually iconic brand logo was never going to be enough,” says Dean Aragon, CEO of Shell Brands International, who joined the company in 2014 from Unilever and fast-tracked its holistic audio integration.
At the time Shell already was just starting down the road developing a strategy with former sonic agency CORD and its CEO Daniel Jackson, who since has relaunched the company as Sonicbrand. What began as a conversation around a commercial jingle evolved into the creation of a soundscape that aspired to be as universally evocative as Shell’s visual icon, the pectin shell.
“It would be impossible to encapsulate everything the pectin stood for if we only had two seconds of sound. So it went rapidly from how does the pectin sound to how does the brand sound,” says Jackson, whose team recorded sounds at gas stations, oil rigs, “from upstream and downstream in the business” to analyze the company’s existing sonic footprint.
“We were able to identify to the business it was missing an opportunity in creating a harmonious sound,” he says.
The resulting work not only created an award-winning sonic brand—Shell stood second only to Mastercard in the 2020 Best Audio Rankings by sonic branding agency amp—but to date has saved the company tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees.
“The savings come from not paying for music rights,” says Jane Keate, Shell global brand standards and assurance manager. “When I think about all the times we used music previously, and the number of teams and agencies that used it, and now we have the one central [sound]. If you extrapolate that to the scale of Shell… it’s in the millions of dollars.”
Here are the key takeaways directly from the team behind Shell’s sonic strategy.
Find Your Company Champion
Every brand strategy needs a champion. In the emerging realm of sonics it can be a particularly tough sell to segue away from embedded internal and agency-driven practices.
For Shell, that champion is Dean Aragon.
“If Dean hadn’t believed in it, it would’ve failed,” Jackson says. “He would use his right of veto over all the agencies and all his marketing people and say, ‘You will comply.’ That takes a strength of character and conviction that what you’re doing is correct.”
Expand Your Definition Of Sonic Branding
While some companies create a jingle and call it a sonic brand, Shell sought a complete soundscape. For this, the team turned to the masters of thematic soundscapes—film and television composers—and ultimately to Tom Howe, whose work includes the scores for The Great British Bake-off, Whiskey Cavalier and Paranormal Witness.
The ask was not for a several minutes, but several hours of music Shell eventually pared down after testing in several global markets. They then commissioned an orchestra to record at Beatles-famous Abbey Road.
“We really made sure we could work with a composer to determine what is that signature sound for Shell that will evoke the right feelings, the right emotions, the right spirit. And as we humanize the brand, to be consistently associated with it,” Aragon says.
“It’s not something that you enter and exit with every campaign, but something that has a cumulative effect over time. As humans we are hard-wired to look for personification elements in things like brands, and the extent to which brands are able to channel these human elements is the extent to which brands have the ability to have real visceral connections.”
Give Music A Seat At The Table
Rather than occupying its own silo within the company, the Sound of Shell is housed within Shell’s brand center of excellence, the division that oversees all aspects of internal and commissioned brand messaging.
“With a brand like Shell, which is present in more than 100 countries, you need to have a degree of consistency,” Aragon says. “When I entered, one of the things we determined quite decisively was we were going to have to define a multi-sensorial strategy and the first port of call would be the sonic element of that strategy. It’s a key component of the overall branding strategy, not so much a sonic strategy per se.”
To boot, Jackson says, Shell is a company “that aspires to 100% compliance with its own rules. They have an engineer’s attitude toward risk and an engineer’s attitude toward compliance. And it was the application of the engineering background to the opportunity of sound that really developed what we’ve got today.”
Bend Without Breaking
Whether your company is global like Shell or local in its scope, it’s key to develop sonic branding that can bend and flex across locations and years while still maintaining its core signature.
“If you just have a signature mnemonic, one of the risks is it becomes a cookie-cutter template and will be ineffective because in a brand’s life it will have different narratives with different tonalities, and be deployed in different markets with different target cohorts,” Aragon says. “You need to be able to inject a cultural nuance into it, and adapt it to a specific mood. Is it a somber mood, a graceful mood, a triumphant move, an action move?”
Aragon says early recognition the company needed something that could flex in itself was the key innovation.
“If you just impose one type of music, our ability to enroll the rest of the Shell marketers to leverage the Sound of Shell would be quite limited. I would reject it too, if I were on the receiving end. Aiming for a breadth of arrangements, instrumentations, genres and moods was the key innovation to make sure it became welcome and heavily leveraged by all of the marketers in Shell.”
Keep Looking Around the Corner
While music is the biggest part of Shell’s sound strategy, the company is looking ahead—specifically to voice activations and non-musical soundscape.
“We won’t ever have a single human voice which represents the Shell brand, but we may have a suite of voices, as brands are increasingly experienced by a voice—Alexa, or the way voice activates in the car—we need to define what we want the voices of shell to sound like,” Keate says.
“If you think of a website with the pectin on it, how might that pectin move, or subtly breathe, and what sound might accompany that? It might not necessarily be music.”