How does HBO think about their analog sonic branding in the digital age : Planet Money What happens when the iconic symbol of your brand no longer makes sense? Today, HBO tries to evolve their sonic brand. This episode was adapted from the podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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Hey. Wailin Wong here. Does something feel weird, maybe a little off? If you're a careful listener, you might have noticed that there's something missing from the beginning of this episode. Normally you would hear a little coin drop, and then a woman says, this is PLANET MONEY from NPR.


WONG: I recently learned that this thing has a name. It's called a Sonic ID. And with me today is Dallas Taylor. He is the host of a podcast called "Twenty Thousand Hertz," and he is a geek for Sonic IDs. Hi, Dallas.

DALLAS TAYLOR: Hi, Wailin. So you can think of a Sonic ID almost like an audio logo. So instead of, say, a Nike swoosh, it's a sound, and it represents a whole brand. You probably know a lot more of these than you realize. So, for example...


WONG: Intel?

TAYLOR: That's right. Ding, ding, ding.

WONG: Oh, I - like, I got a little sweaty for a second because I really wanted to get the right answer. And I was like, oh, it's a tech brand - OK, Intel.

TAYLOR: So how about this sound?


WONG: Oh, that is the sound of an incoming notification, right?

TAYLOR: From what place?

WONG: I feel like I hear it 50 times a day.

TAYLOR: That's what's so brilliant about sonic branding. It's so familiar. You've heard it a million times. But in this case, you can't quite put your finger on exactly where it came from. But what that is, is it's called the pop ding. And it's the sound of receiving a message in Facebook.

WONG: Oh, yes, yes.

TAYLOR: OK, this sound?


WONG: Oh, I do know that one. It's Netflix.

TAYLOR: Correct. How does it make you feel?

WONG: It makes me feel like I am settling in to focus on something. I have this kind of thing when I'm watching Netflix, I don't like to be doing other stuff. So I feel like that sound sets me up for it because it's like, OK, da-dum (ph), ladies and gentlemen, here is today's presentation. And then I try to be in a distraction-free zone.

TAYLOR: And that's exactly why they created it. So you can see how these Sonic IDs would be super, super valuable to a company. But what happens when the sound just isn't working anymore?

WONG: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, we're passing the mic to Dallas Taylor of "Twenty Thousand Hertz" to tell us about HBO's quest for the perfect Sonic ID and what goes into making an iconic sound.

TAYLOR: That's coming up after the break.


TAYLOR: So a few years ago, HBO had a big sound problem. They had two sonic logos. The first was this epic theme song they played before a movie came on.


TAYLOR: A lot of our listeners have great memories of it.

TOM: Growing up, we would get really excited every time the HBO introduction would come on because we sort of had this ritual where every time it came on, at the very end, when they had that big trumpet fanfare and sort of the lasers that was going in some sort of circle, we would just spin around and around until we got so dizzy that we fell on the floor. We would do that every single time it came on. I still get a little bit dizzy every time I hear that.

TAYLOR: But this full orchestral piece was dated. It was composed by Ferdinand Jay Smith back in the '80s. And nearly four decades later, this theme really didn't make sense for the modern age. But as the internet took over the world, sitting down for a movie was no longer a special event that happened once or twice. It was something that people can now do any time they want, and they probably didn't want to hear a bombastic 90-second intro every time they did.


JASON MULDERIG: My name is Jason Mulderig. I oversee brand marketing for HBO Max and HBO.

TAYLOR: In 2010, the network launched HBO Go, which was their first entry into the world of streaming. By that point, though, the "Feature Presentation" theme wasn't being used all that much. For starters, it's over a minute long.

MULDERIG: It's really long. No one wants to watch something for a minute before you watch a movie. Like, you want to watch it now, very much on demand.

TAYLOR: But Jason and his team knew how important this music was to the brand, and they wanted to bring back that magic and excitement. However, they had to do it in a way that made sense in the age of streaming.

MULDERIG: We decided we want to get back to using more of these emotional triggers, enhance the emotional connection. And how do we take all the great memories of HBO and package it up for a contemporary audience, for our audience today? How do we take this thing that existed in the past that we know has power, and how do we update it and make it sound a little bit more contemporary?

TAYLOR: To answer these questions, Jason reached out to a sonic branding agency.

MICKEY ALEXANDER: We got approached in late 2016 to refresh this for sort of a new era of HBO.

TAYLOR: That's Mickey Alexander for Made Music Studio.

ALEXANDER: We just jumped at the opportunity. Why wouldn't we want to work on this iconic piece that's been around for almost four decades now?


TAYLOR: The first thing they knew they wanted to do was update the musical style.

ALEXANDER: The original is very of the time. It's very disco-y. You've got this sort of pop '70s, '80s orchestra on it. And we wanted to take that and make it relevant again.

TAYLOR: But even if they changed the style, they didn't want to mess with Ferdinand's original melody.

ALEXANDER: This theme and this melody - it's been around so long 'cause it's so memorable and iconic on its own. So it was really important to keep that intact.

TAYLOR: Mickey and his team wanted this music to evoke the feeling of sitting down for an awesome movie, so they started experimenting with different styles inspired by movie soundtracks.

ALEXANDER: We came up with about half a dozen demos that referenced different genres of film, and so we had things that were a little more mysterious...


ALEXANDER: ...A little more dramatic...


ALEXANDER: ...A little more optimistic...


ALEXANDER: ...Some things that are maybe percussion driven, some things that are more of a traditional orchestra.


TAYLOR: Eventually, they landed on an epic blockbuster sound.

ALEXANDER: It was pretty clear from the beginning that we were going to be exploring a sort of hybrid orchestra-meets-electronic, modern take on what a movie score is. And so we came in with a bunch of reference material from out in the world, big composers like Henry Jackman...


ALEXANDER: ...Or Joseph Trapanese...


ALEXANDER: ...And films that use this sort of hybrid orchestral-electronic approach.

TAYLOR: When it came time to record, each section of the orchestra was recorded separately.

ALEXANDER: The ensemble we came up with was meant to mimic, to an extent, what a traditional film scoring session would look like. So in our session, we had little over 20 strings, about a dozen brass.


ALEXANDER: And we had this very special low-frequency session.


ALEXANDER: And what we did was we called in these crazy, super-low woodwinds that you really only find in specialty pieces, things like contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet. And in a lot of cases, these instruments are bigger than the people who are playing them. And so we had these super-low-end instruments in a separate session so we had control over it in the mix.

TAYLOR: Next, they layered in some synthesizers and electronic sounds.


ALEXANDER: So there's this very cool sort of dichotomy in the sound where we're taking older, analog sources and a live studio orchestra, and we're blending it with modern, electronic, synthetic elements.

TAYLOR: Once they put all of those pieces together, this was the final result.


ALEXANDER: So this piece starts out, it's very soft and gentle. There's a piano that references the first part of this HBO melody. And throughout, we sort of build a little bit at a time.


ALEXANDER: We introduce more orchestral elements...


ALEXANDER: ...More synthetic electronic elements. We have this big climax at the end. We tease the melody throughout, and then you don't get the full HBO melody until the very end.

MULDERIG: I love the triumph of the horns at the end. It's just, like, such a big, big sound.


MULDERIG: I love it. That's my favorite part. That gets me every time. And I've probably listened to it a hundred thousand times.

TAYLOR: The new theme song and the animation that goes with it is a little shorter than the original version. But by today's standards, it's still pretty long. In the age of streaming, it's unlikely that people will sit through something longer than a few seconds. So the challenge was to take this track and distill it down into bite-size segments.


ALEXANDER: We did three very short "Feature Presentation" clips, and these were about 10 seconds each.


TAYLOR: But in some cases, even 10 seconds can be too long. So eventually, Mickey and his team made some that were even shorter. HBO started sprinkling these sounds all across their network.

MULDERIG: It still exists in various forms on the network. We've just changed the length. We've changed the instrumentation. So in some instances, we use it in three-, five-, 10-second little beats on the network.


TAYLOR: By breaking the theme into these tiny pieces, HBO took this long, nostalgic track that people used to hear maybe once a week and made it something that they'd hear multiple times a day. But they did it in a way where you wouldn't get sick of it.

ALEXANDER: They've done a really great job at being subtle and creating this memory trigger with it across the network, across their properties. And so this melody really defines HBO as a brand.

TAYLOR: When people hear the three-note melody under, say, an up next promo...


TAYLOR: ...They might not even realize where that music came from. But slowly, subconsciously, they start to build associations with that melody, associations that get triggered every single time they hear it. And that's what great sonic branding is all about.

ALEXANDER: When we're working on branding or thematic music, the first thing to consider is, will people remember it? And we're really creating memory triggers for the audience.

TAYLOR: The "Feature Presentation" theme had not only survived the transition to the digital age; it was thriving in a whole new way. But what about the static angel?


TAYLOR: Did it even make sense to modern viewers? I mean, when was the last time you saw actual black-and-white TV static? After more than 20 years, maybe it was finally time to update this sound for the digital world. That's coming up after the break.


TAYLOR: In 2017, HBO commissioned a new version of their iconic "Feature Presentation" theme song. HBO took this single piece of music and expanded it into an entire sonic brand. But HBO still had another sound to think about. It was the so-called static angel that played before their original shows.


TAYLOR: That sound was originally designed to transport people from run-of-the-mill television into something truly special. The problem was that both the sound and the animation were based on analog TV static, which is something we almost never see nowadays. So over the years, the idea of changing that sound came up on more than one occasion.


BRUCE RICHMOND: When we moved to high def, there was a need to make a new asset because no one had made a high-def logo yet.

TAYLOR: Bruce Richmond led the team that created the static angel.

RICHMOND: So it was an opportunity for us to revisit, do we need a new logo?

TAYLOR: Bruce and his team started testing out all kinds of new versions.

RICHMOND: That was, like, three months of, like, boards and meetings. I mean, it went everywhere. Every idea - they were all really good branding ideas. There was nothing ever that was bad. You know, nobody came in with, like, hey, let's put a chicken on the HBO. We did the same thing we did last time, but this time something very funny happened. We went through the development process, and we kept going and going and going and going, and we couldn't land on something. We had to examine why we couldn't get away from that logo, and it was very simple.

MULDERIG: At the end of the day, we always come back to, we just can't top this. We can't beat it.


MULDERIG: The sound hasn't changed. It's remained untouched.

TAYLOR: As the head of brand marketing for HBO, Jason Mulderig has spent a lot of time thinking about what this sound means to people.

MULDERIG: It's become this incredible ritual of sitting down and watching something and having this powerful emotional trigger that sets you in this emotional space of anticipation and waiting for what's going to come next.

RICHMOND: Even when I hear it now, it conditions me.

MULDERIG: It's Pavlovian in a way. It recalls memories.

MICHELLE: So every time the HBO audio logo plays on TV, my partner and I always sing the three tuba notes that follow for the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" theme song, even if we're watching another show on HBO that's completely different. When the HBO logo kicks in for it...


MICHELLE: ...(Imitating static angel), we'll start singing...


MICHELLE: ...(Imitaing "Frolic" by Luciano Michelini).

SETH: There's only one thing that I hear when I hear that...


SETH: ...(Imitating static angel). It's - (imitating "Main Title" by Ramin Djawadi) - "Game Of Thrones."


LUIS: Every time I heard that static, you know, my brain subconsciously prepared itself to escape for an hour or so. It kind of just holds a special place in my heart.


MULDERIG: We've done a lot of consumer research, and we see the emotional connection that it creates to the content.

TAYLOR: At one point, Jason and his team were testing some new sounds and animations to use in place of the static angel. The focus group didn't seem that impressed. But then the static sound came on.


MULDERIG: All of a sudden, the nostalgia and the positivity and the recall of all the warmth they had for the brand came out, and the focus group did 180 degrees. And it was - at that point, we were like, we can't change this. We just can't change it. It's too powerful. It means too much. The best thing we can do, the smartest thing we can do is to not change it.

TAYLOR: Even as HBO has spread around the world, this sound has stayed the same in every single country.

MULDERIG: It has become such a distinct thing that I think translates quite well to any language. It's an audio trigger, and I think that works in any language in any region because it is associated with the content.

TAYLOR: In the digital world, a logo built around TV static might seem out of place, but it turns out that doesn't really matter. This sound has taken on a meaning of its own.

MULDERIG: It means so much more than whatever it originated as. It signals so much more. So it's really sort of hallowed ground.


TAYLOR: After all these years, that theme music and that static sound are still the foundation of HBO's sonic brand. They're catchy. They're memorable. And they're just satisfying to listen to. But the nostalgia that people have for these sounds is just as important as how they were designed, and nostalgia isn't something you can manufacture, and it's definitely not something you can buy.


WONG: Are you starting to notice sonic logos everywhere? We'd love to hear about your favorite. Email, or find us on social media. We're @planetmoney.

This episode was originally produced by "Twenty Thousand Hertz," and it's actually part of a two-part series about HBO. Part one is called "It's Not TV. It's HBO." To hear that episode and other stories about iconic sounds, you can find "Twenty Thousand Hertz" wherever you're listening to this podcast.

TAYLOR: The "Twenty Thousand Hertz" episode was written and produced by Fran Board and Casey Emmerling, with help from Sam Rinebold. It was sound designed and mixed by Soren Begin and Joel Boyter, with original music by Wesley Slover.

WONG: This PLANET MONEY episode was produced by Emma Peaslee and edited by Jess Jiang, mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. I'm Wailin Wong.

TAYLOR: And I'm Dallas Taylor.

WONG: This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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