101 Great Minds on
Music, Brands and Behavior

Agency EDITION

SONAL DABRAL

Chairman, Chief Creative Officer at DDB Mudra Group

 

"Music is no longer merely punctuating the brand’s storyline. In more and more cases, it is becoming the story itself."

 

Sonal Dabral, Chairman, Chief Creative Officer, DDB Mudra Group

 

Dabral can boast more than two decades of experience in the advertising industry, working on major global brands such as Volkswagen, Audi, Dove, Cadburys, Sony, and Coca-Cola. A graduate of the National Institute of Design (NID), and following illustrious engagements at a range of Indian ad agencies, Dabral moved to Kuala Lumpur to head up Ogilvy in Malaysia and made it one of the top creative offices in the region. In 2011, Dabral was appointed Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of DDB Mudra Group out of Mumbai. Apart from winning awards ranging from Cannes Lions to Clios, D & AD, One Show, LIA, Andy Awards, AdFest and Spikes, Dabral has served on many global juries and spoken at major festivals like LIA, Dubai Lynx, Spikes Asia Singapore. In his spare time, Dabral is also a popular TV host, Bollywood scriptwriter and director of ad films.

Reese: In your opinion, how important is music in building a brand?

Dabral: Music has been an integral part of humanity for ages. It moves us and appeals to our very core. I truly believe music can be a potent factor in building a brand as it greatly helps strengthen the nuances of any brand story. It helps create the desired mood, changes the pace of the narrative, aids in recall, enhances likeability and ultimately helps a brand in making a true emotional connection with the consumer.

Reese: How important is music for you personally and for your work? and so on, how important will their role be in branding?

Dabral: Agra, the town I grew up in, is famous for its rich musical and artistic heritage dating back to Mughal times. And no matter where you are in India, you are never too far away from the influence of Bollywood music. Music is an intrinsic part of my life and an important pillar in my creative process. Early in my career, I worked on an iconic campaign for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Much of its success can be attributed to its simple, catchy, yet very insightful song. Another example: I was recently briefed on a campaign for a 60 second
TVC. But because music plays such a vital role in the life of the product’s target audience, I decided to write an anthem of friendship instead. The result was a 7-minute-long music video for the internet instead of a 60 second TVC. The video is a runaway success and
has been viewed close to 6 million times on YouTube within just 4 months of its release.

Reese: Do you think the right choice of music can change consumer behavior?

Dabral: Music is magic. It has healing powers. Music talks to our hearts. That’s why the right choice of music can help greatly in influencing consumer behavior.

Reese: Do you believe a brand should be recognizable by sound only?

Dabral: If logos, trademarks and mascots are a brand’s visual assets, audio mnemonics, audio signatures, jingles etc. are its aural assets. We are living in very distracted times with thousands of messages constantly vying for our attention from hundreds of sources. In an environment like that, it’s crucial for any brand to build assets that are instantly recognizable. So it’s essential that brands have their own recognizable audio assets.

Reese: Should brands have an audio style guide – just as they have a visual style guide?

Dabral: That’s an idea. Brands have long had visual and verbal guides for all the reasons we have discussed above, maybe it’s about time we also thought of audio style guides. As the number of brands entering the market is increasing, the consumer’s attention span is decreasing. In a scenario like this, visual, verbal and audio style guides become crucial for consistency. The only difficulty with guidelines is that they can get restrictive, so they should offer a certain flexibility.

"Human beings can’t survive without music and wherever technology takes us tomorrow we will always respond to music the way we did a thousand years back."

Reese: Can you share your most memorable experience with music and how it influenced your work?

Dabral: In India, music is everywhere. As a kid I went to temples with my mother and listened to loudly sung religious chants and bhajans (religious songs). On a student trip to Rajasthan a few years later, I listened to the throaty melodies of local folk singers while sitting on desert dunes under a full moon. Or when I heard the religious quawali at Fatehpur Sikri (the historical city founded by Mughal Emperor Akbar). These are experiences that have left an indelible mark on me and have all taught me the huge power music wields over our hearts and minds.

Reese: Do you talk to your clients about audio brand design?

Dabral: A lot of clients today are conscious about their brand’s audio design. Conversations around tone, imagery and feel rarely exclude music and audio design. That is heartening. We try to convince the client that it’s important to have a unique audio identity in an
overly branded environment.

Reese: What’s your current decision-making process involving music?

Dabral: The first question we ask is, “What are we saying?” not “What should the music be?” Often, we as creators, think in words and pictures, not musical notes. So, we prioritize the verbal and visual components of the story. Music is chosen mostly after all the other aspects of the ad have been crafted. But there are exceptions where music leads the conversation. Some say the era of the jingle is over. But virtually every big brand has a jingle to its name or has employed the jingle as an expression of its idea at some point in its lifecycle. Some jingles have even lasted for decades. There is a reason the jingle is refusing to die. It still works. And goes back to what we were discussing earlier. Human beings can’t survive without music and wherever technology takes us tomorrow we will always respond to music the way we did a thousand years back.

Reese: Where do you see the greatest challenge in finding a brand’s voice?

Dabral: The greatest challenge lies in staying authentic. It is tempting to hitch your brand’s bandwagon to the latest trend in music. To stay true to the brand’s personality and create music that’s integral to its worldview is tougher. But much more rewarding in the long run.

Reese: How do you communicate music when briefing a music partner?

Dabral: Fortunately, my deep interest and knowledge of music and ability to sing (a bit) helps me when I brief music composers. Whatever the problem we are trying to solve, I always begin the conversation with what the piece of music is supposed to communicate, its tonality. Only then I get down to the specifics like words and melodies. Sometimes, there’s a tune stuck in my head. I simply hum it for the composer, and he takes it from there. As I also pen the lyrics, it becomes easy for me to work with Music Directors.

Reese: What’s your evaluation process? Do you test audio assets used in your brand communication? music when briefing a music partner?

Dabral: In my opinion, music and audio assets are best left to instinct. When you hear something, and it makes your hair stand on its end, you know you’ve got it right. It’s the only test that matters.

Reese: How do you determine how much you are willing to pay for music – licensed or scored?

Dabral: When the idea is rooted in the musical execution, the selection of the track or the composer is of paramount importance. If it is a licensed track, we usually pay on the basis of the popularity and recency of the track. If it is an original score, we pay on the basis of the experience and body of work of the composer.

Reese: Is there a certain brand that you admire in their use of audio in their brand communication?

Dabral: I really admire the way McDonald‘s and DDB have been using music with great effect to consistently build their brand across the world for years now. Wonderful use of music to build a long lasting emotional connect with their audiences belonging to diverse culture and geographies. The same counts for Coca-Cola. And of course, who can forget the sound that accompanies “Intel Inside”. Pure genius when it comes to owning an audio asset.

Reese: Do you see a shift in how important music is becoming in your brand communication?

Dabral: Yes, absolutely. Music is no longer merely punctuating the brand’s storyline. In more and more cases, it is becoming the story itself. As brands are moving away from rational messages and having higher order emotional conversations about the consumer’s life, the role of music is becoming increasingly important. I recently worked on a TVC for Volkswagen where a Chameleon falls in love with the new VW Jetta. We started the production thinking that the film will have a soundtrack with ambient sounds. As the film started taking shape we realized that we could actually have a song in the film that can aid in storytelling. So, we recorded a love song from the point of view of the besotted chameleon and it worked wonders.

Reese: Where do you see the challenges and opportunities when working with music in a branded social network environment?

Dabral: The television commercial has historically been the initial platform where brands have used music to support a visual idea. As consumers are engaging with newer social platforms, brands now have the opportunity to tailor their ‘sound’ for this new media environment. In a more complex and cluttered audio-visual landscape, where it is easy for a consumer to switch off and switch on at will, brands will find it difficult to shake off consumer apathy.

Reese: What does the audio branding of the future look like?

Dabral: The shift is going to be from mass to personal. From consuming to experiencing. With new multimedia platforms being developed, brands can further use audio to extend their reach and ability to impact the consumer on a multitude of levels. To put it simply, in the future, wherever there’s a screen, there can be branded audio.

Reese: How does a big idea feel? Do you recognize it immediately when it arrives?

Dabral: I have always instantly felt that I have hit upon a big idea whenever I’ve had the fortune of coming up with one. In that moment one feels the awe and euphoria that only a big idea can bring. A rare a-ha moment that makes your jaw drop, knocks your socks off and most importantly shows you a new path, a new way of doing things.

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