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Why Netflix has missed a beat with its new cinematic sonic brand strategy

Paul Reynolds, MD of MassiveMusic explores what the sound of sonic success looks like for brands wanting to stand out in the market.

Paul Reynolds, MassiveMusic

Managing Director

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When you think of the theme tunes of film studios, what comes to mind? Most likely, the Twentieth Century Fox theme that starts with the iconic military-style drums leading into the joyous orchestral fanfare, or the roar of the lion for MGM. Or perhaps even the recognisable Pearl and Dean cinema advertising jingle that, in the UK, we’ve come to know over the years, ‘pa-pa pa-pa pa-pa pa-pa papapaaaa.’ These cues transcend the visual. They aren’t just designed to be memorable but to signify the start of a theatrical production, something exciting, an escapism, a new world we are entering. They are brands rooted in a strategy that, over time, have cemented themselves into the heart of the film-watching experience.

So, it isn’t really a surprise that Netflix has created its own cinematic version of its ‘ta-dum’ sonic brand for movie theatres, teaming up with Hans Zimmer, known for his incredible work on epic productions such as Gladiator, Inception, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Interstellar, to name but a small few. The whole purpose is to badge the experience as Netflix, the disruptor who has now turned its attention to creating original cinematic content and competing with the big guns.

The result? Well there’s no denying that it’s a world-class piece of music, as expected from such an acclaimed maestro. But the sonic identity sounds so similar to the rest of the movie studio world, which is surprising considering the very disruptive ethos of Netflix. If you put all the studio themes together, most would be hard to distinguish and this sits in that category. As a brand that likes to stand completely in its own space, this doesn’t do that; the aesthetic and strategy behind it is off.

The sonic identity is not going to hold the power and effectiveness that it has the potential to if it makes no sense for the brand.

Paul Reynolds

Anchored on basic brand truths

Not fully understanding the components needed to build an effective and deep-rooted sonic identity is where brands often fall down. Musically, Zimmer has created yet another masterpiece, damn, this guy is good, but, in my view, it’s Netflix who has seemed to have skipped that fundamental strategic stage. It’s where you discover that great music alone just doesn't cut it, despite it being anthemic and composed by arguably the most famous living movie score composer. It doesn’t feel like it came from Netflix.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing they worked with him and great to see someone in his position turning his attention to sonic branding and recognising the potential and value in that. But the sonic identity is not going to hold the power and effectiveness that it has the potential to if it makes no sense for the brand. It needs to anchor on basic brand truths that people understand for it to be truly effective.

We see this a lot, especially in sports. When we were asked to develop a new sound of the Premier League, we conducted detailed research and analysis of leagues around the world, the key being to find out how to differentiate. We discovered so many fell into the trap of sounding the same and following industry convention rather than spending the time to properly understand how sound can work incredibly hard in brand-building. We then worked to truly understand the components of the league brand and what defines it to fans so that the sonic brand could not just reflect this sentiment, but have it embedded within.

You’d never copy a logo, so why copy a sound?

Similarly, at the start of the global pandemic, we saw brands immediately following basic and lazy advertising conventions, which resulted in an undistinguishable blend of advertising messaging all looking and sounding the same. No-one was identifying the space in between to stand out or do something slightly different.

When you have a really good sonic strategy, something that you can split and pull out brand DNA for different types of user interface and experience touchpoints, you get that desired experience and you hear and feel it everywhere. This then makes it difficult to copy. Sadly, in almost every category, you see leading brands with differentiating visual logos, yet which sonically sound the same. You’d never look at your competitor logos and copy them so why do it with sound and music?

There are some exceptions to the rule where companies buck the trend. Take the rousing Marvel opener or the playful originality of Pixar. Disney’s is so strong, different and instantly recognisable that you are immediately transported to its magical world.

Many brands make the mistake in looking just within their category when a good disruptor understands how consumer behaviours are shifting across multiple categories.

Paul Reynolds

The sound of sonic success

For Netflix, it seems as though they thought that by creating a conventional, big swirling orchestral composition they could compete in this space overnight. And by adding the ‘ta-dum’ at the end that it would fluidly translate back to the brand. Although that powerful and iconic ‘ta-dum’ we hear when we log on to Netflix is one of the most recognisable and powerful sonic IDs in recent years, here it could have been unpacked more with the components teasing to that final climatic point, but it doesn’t. It feels as though they simply followed tradition in the movie studio sector.

Even for giant global brands like Netflix, that have had huge impact across a sector, the key is to understand how to use the ‘badging’ moment in the most effective way possible, that it still needs crucial strategy and understanding behind it, even if you have the audience. A partnership between Netflix and Zimmer is what dreams are made of; the creativity can be endless in communicating the originality that is being produced and becoming the powerhouse in film entertainment. We would be thrilled to work with either because we know they can push boundaries.

The key though is about finding that space in which the brand can stand out and truly resonate with what it stands for, whether that’s in the cinema, on television, in advertising or smart speakers. It needs to work as hard as possible, supported by a strong and clear strategy, and that is when you hear the sound of sonic success. 

Guest Author

Paul Reynolds, MassiveMusic

Managing Director,

About

Paul’s career in music started in the late 90s producing and DJing in the dance music scene. After a brief hiatus in the advertising photography world, Paul returned to music production where he managed major international productions for broadcast branding, promos and commercials. He quickly moved up to Head of Production & Business Development, managing a team of producers and composers. In 2011, Paul set up the London operation for international music agency MassiveMusic. He entered the company to the UK and Europe's sonic branding & strategy, music production, supervision, and talent management industries, quickly becoming one of London's leading music agencies. For lovers of 90s house and drum'n'bass, Paul can still sometimes be caught dusting off his decks for a nostalgic vinyl trip.

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Music Sonic Branding