Recently, Hugh Todd, CD at Leo Burnett, referred to a mnemonic as “a little dab of shit - three seconds of audio gunk ruining the previous 27 of lovingly crafted writing… a bit like seeing the Stone Roses and, on your way out, the PA plays Rick Astley.” I think that’s a bit harsh on Rick but it’s a sentiment that many in our industry share. Yet ‘clever’, ‘resourceful’, ‘savvy’, blue chip companies across the world over spend millions of pounds at attempting to create their own little bit of sonic identity. They do it because all current marketing comms say that mnemonics are worth their weight in gold. Clients think our attention spans are shot. That we're all multi-screening so mnemonics give them a chance of some memory hook. This is true. We all know that music can deliver fantastic brand identity, that it can transform campaigns and thus throwing corporate dollars at this elusive holy grail is wholly justified… But only if they’re good. To be good you need to approach them with the right methodology. Beware of entering this casino with preconceived formulas that have previously hit the jackpot. You could lose more than your dignity.
Ask any composer what they think of composing mnemonics and they’ll visibly shrivel before you into a little ball of bitterness as they reflect on the countless wasted days they’ve spent in the pursuit of those little pieces of musical magic. It seems that many agencies feel the same way.
The problem lies, I think, with a new-ish group of people in our industry – self-styled sonic gurus who stroll into board rooms and sell an idea to an eager and unsuspecting client that they can produce a piece of music that is all things to all people - a piece of sonic alchemy that will result in a frenzy of consumer buffoonery. Snake oil in fact. Then, even more annoyingly, the aforementioned guru turns up at our - and many others’ - doors with a brief that is basically the iconic mnemonic that is Intel but, being oh so cunning, they’ve added an extra note and the proviso that ‘it shouldn’t sound like Intel’. And there it is. The grave has been dug.
The corpse will arrive a few weeks later after the misery of countless meetings, millions of opinions offered and hundreds of pointless demos commissioned which will only end when a beleaguered and battered piece of sonic drivel is revealed. Or, more usually, the brand just eventually runs out of time and energy, cuts their losses and gives up. And all because someone who knows very little about music has put together a brief which will determine that everything that’s now produced will sound like the poor relation to Intel. They’ve set themselves up to fail.
What do we know?
The real secret of successful mnemonics is that they're remembered. The real secret of successful mnemonics is that they're remembered. The real secret of successful mnemonics is that they're remembered. The real secret of successful mnemonics is that they're remembered. It's not in the writing, it's in the remembering.
Actually, that’s wrong. The best mnemonics are well written. Mnemonics like Intel. Why, after 20 years, is this still held up as the best example of a mnemonic? Well, because it’s really good. It does the job. It’s sparky, bright. If a computer chip made a noise (which it doesn’t) then it could sound like that. It’s a well-crafted and considered piece of audio that really does sum up the product. It’s been developed over years.
What about ‘I’m Lovin It’, the other really enduring mnemonic from McDonald’s? This is great because it was written by the genius that is Justin Timberlake. It started out as a fully functioning song and, even though it’s now only used in an abbreviated form, its initial quality endures. And that’s it in a nutshell. It’s all about quality.
Similarly, the British Airways music. Whenever you hear their adaptation of Delibes’ Flower Duet, whether you know the composer’s name or not, you’ll immediately think of BA. The thing is, it’s a great piece of classical music which has then been repeatedly used by BA across all branding and adverting platforms for decades. And it’s stuck. We only have to hear the first four notes and we know it’s BA. A great piece of music now synonymous with a great brand.
So what should you do?
The celebrated conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, once said that “the function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought”. So, for example, if you listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony it has the power to transport you to idyllic rural scenes. In a film context it can have a different function. When we see a young girl skinny-dipping in the sea on a beautiful evening it should be a moment of joy but, when that music begins, we all know it’s all about to go wrong.
Jaws’ two note refrain is now synonymous with a violent watery death - it’s become the ultimate danger mnemonic. It’s also a clever bit of composition. In the same way clever or beautiful audio textures can become synonymous with just about anything - but only if they’re relevant… or good.
You can’t just make a five-note audio clip and expect it to explode in the public’s internal psyche, no matter how many times you repeat it. It just doesn’t work like that. Intel was the first of its kind. The same with BA and McDonalds. Don't just try and emulate them. If you gave the brief above to Brian Eno he’d (very nicely) tell you to fuck off. And quite rightly.
A mnemonic doesn’t have to have five notes. It doesn’t have to have any notes. It could be the sound of train passing in the night. It could be the slow-mo’d flutter of a small bird. It could be just about anything but, as soon as you tell a composer what you think it should be, you’re not going to get the benefit of their talent. Show them the problem and listen to their solution. Partner with them, allowing sufficient oxygen in the room to breathe their own thoughts and you might just have the next Intel. And, it might just be nothing at all like Intel…