101 Great Minds on
Music, Brands and Behavior


Rahul Malhotra

Head of Brand Strategy & Stewardship at Shell


“Consumers are not waiting actively for your brand to communicate with them. In reality, the brand dialogue is more subtle, whether it’s the music in the elevator, the background music in the reception lobby or the retail forecourt.”

Rahul Malhotra, Head of Brand Strategy & Stewardship, Shell

In his 25-year career with Procter & Gamble and Shell, Rahul has led several global businesses as P&L head and helped shape the destiny of several global brands (e.g. Shell, Pampers, Vicks, Metamucil, Whisper/Always, Tide, Ariel, Olay). He has lived and worked in Singapore, India, Japan, Switzerland, the US and now lives in London.
Rahul is a passionate historian and economist. He was a professional rock musician before choosing marketing as a career but continues with a new love for the piano. Married with two children, he enjoys reading non-fiction, hiking, and cooking.

Uli Reese: Let’s start by talking a little bit about your role at Shell.

Rahul Malhotra:
My role is to define and develop the Shell brand. We also act as a consulting team for the rest of Shell in terms of how they think about branding and marketing. There’s both an external and internal element. External is around licensing and earning trademark license revenue, while internal is where I spend most of my time helping individual business leaders change business strategies to develop and represent the brand through their choices. Internal also covers the mandatory approval service for all the 40,000 to 50,000 pieces of communication our offshore team approves each year. Finally, some of my time goes towards brand protection as well.

Reese: You invested in a sonic identity some time ago. Is this paying off for you?

All the evidence we have, shows that our sonic identity work is paying off in many different ways. Firstly, the time to market for our asset development has improved because of our central database of assets. We have about 500 to 700 versions of the Sound of Shell in different genres classified no differently from any other of the online stores that you see in terms of music. Our partner agencies and staff can listen, download and use it for free. This speeds up the entire process of creating assets. Secondly, it saves us a significant amount of money by the absence of royalties or production costs that we otherwise would have to pay.

Reese: Can you see the merit of having a sound asset database?

Rahul: Besides cost savings, it’s really about brand building. Consumers are not waiting actively for your brand to communicate with them. In reality, the brand dialogue is more subtle, whether it’s the music in the elevator, the background music in the reception lobby or the retail forecourt. We are the world’s largest mobility retailer, with more stores than many of the famous global coffee and fast food chains. So how do we reach the 30 million customers a day in a way that engages all of their senses? Sonic identity is a very powerful opportunity to engage with our customers and drive brand attribution.

Reese: In this Golden Age of audio 80% of premium brands still have no sonic identity. What would you say to them?

Rahul: I think the starting point is brand strategy and many brands don’t have one unfortunately. Have you stepped back and looked at the role of your brand in anyone’s life? What value is your brand adding to the lives of your stakeholders? What is your purpose, your promises? Once you’ve nailed that and have your data then you can look at the key touchpoints your stakeholders will engage with the brand in over the next five to ten years.

Reese: What initially moved Shell to find a sonic identity?

Rahul: About five years ago (in 2015), our new VP of brand had just come in from Unilever and we had a fresh look at the brand. The sonic experience was something we were talking about more and more thanks to Alexa and Google. We had a vision of where sound was going and thus decided to start with having our own sonic DNA. We recorded at the Abbey Road Studios with a full orchestra. After the sonic DNA of the brand was formulated, we allowed local markets to take it and adapt it with strong guidance from our music experts who help us. That’s how we ended up with the hundreds of versions for all sorts of local festivals and markets, and in many different genres such as rock and EDM.

Reese: How did you find the company to help you?

Rahul: The process started about six months before I joined but essentially my team worked with associated agencies on visual identity and they were able to recommend the music partner we currently have. Given how musically inclined our whole team is they also played a strong role in guiding the process.

Reese: Is the use of your many hundreds of versions of the Shell sound assets mandatory for all markets?

Rahul: It’s mandatory. One of the unique things about Shell is that we mandatorily request that every piece of external and internal communication is approved by my offshore team. We have a very strong brand governance at executive level for support. It’s all available in an easy to access brand central website, which has a very nice user experience.

Reese: So if your music is not free but mandatory, what would your advice be to brands who create their sonic identity then say 12 months down the line and get bored of it?

My advice would be to start with your business needs. We didn’t want to make it mandatory without offering an alternative. When we had five versions and not 500 versions of dance music, then we’d work with composers to retrofit our music DNA into EDM and we’d do it super quick. You need a little bit of agility. We add to the music bank about every three days and each year we add around a hundred pieces of music. 

Reese: Can you talk more about the economic side of your model?

Rahul: We’ve kept it very simple. We looked at the number of Shell’s sonic assets and we’ve multiplied that with a simple average, which is either buying off-the-shelf music or doing our own compositions. I get a thousand requests a year and out of those thousand if we know 200 a year are supposed to be new compositions and 800 are supposed to be buying or licensing stock music, then we know the cost of doing a weighted average versus the global markets. We take that single number and we multiply it by the sound of Shell pieces. We have saved a lot of money. In number terms the investment we made that one afternoon at Abbey Road has been paid back many times over.

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