What are Gen Z’s favorite brands? How can brands engage with the younger demographic and gain their loyalty and trust? Bjorn Thorliefsson, amp’s Head of Research & Insights, explores the role brand sounds can play in memes via short-form video, and how this form of modern sound branding captures the imagination of Gen Z. 

TikTok has created a strange phenomenon in the sonic branding world. Traditional sonic branding strategies do not work on TikTok, a platform where trending audio reigns supreme. TikTok’s algorithm rewards the use of trending sounds or the use of its own library of music, by pushing content that uses these sounds more.

TikTok users are more likely to interact with a video if it uses audio they know. Gen Z was almost 30% more likely to interact with content that used familiar sounds, and six times more likely to interact with viral audio, than known pop songs (Fig. 1), according to a recent amp study.

Gen Z’s love of viral audio, however, creates three problems for brands.

  1. Licensed tracks, because of copyright issues and extortionate pricing, are not easily available to brands.
  1. Users posting the same audio across thousands of pieces of content creates a sea of sameness that makes it difficult for brands to stand out.
  1. Brand sonic identities are competing for attention against TikTok viral audio for Gen Z engagement.

Most trending audio is user-uploaded and often features licensed tracks that are off-limits to brands without a license. 

The ubiquity of these trending sounds also doesn’t help brands stand out. Brand content, when promoted with trending audio, leads to ad content getting lost in a sea of creators capitalizing on viral moments. All the hard work that goes into the crafting of a sonic identity may be thrown away should a brand’s social media manager opt for popular TikTok library sounds in hopes of securing a boost in engagement. 

So, what can brands do? One possibility lies in the number of trending TikTok audios which contain brand sounds and were created by users themselves. 

The Old Spice sonic logo and the Windows XP error sound are now completely organically associated with numerous TikTok trends. What is remarkable is that the brands, whose sounds are being used, are rarely mentioned. In meme-speak, everyone understands the Windows XP error sound means something is not going as planned. 

But does a “meme’d” brand sound help with brand recognition, even if the brand is not mentioned in the meme? amp research shows that 81% of Gen Z recognize brand sounds when used in a meme (Fig. 2). This is almost double the number of Gen Zs who recognize brand sounds found outside memes. amp also found that Gen Z is twice as likely to name the correct brand by its sound alone when the sound had been used in a meme (Fig. 2). Memes may seem frivolous; however, they hold immense power and can shape and enhance brand recognition when used in short-form video, especially among this demographic. 

At the moment, brands may stand out because so few of Gen Z’s favorite brands are currently using a sonic logo. In amp’s review of Morning Consult’s “Gen Z’s Favorite Brands,” only fourteen of the seventy-two listed brands laid claim to a sonic logo; the average use of these sonic logos was an abysmal 8%. These findings are interesting given amp’s research which discovered that brands with viral sonic material were five times less likely to be mistaken for another brand within their industry. 

An effective sonic identity should be flexible enough to be manipulated, remixed, or meme’d by an everyday Gen Zer. 

Makeup brand e.l.f made social media history by being the first brand challenge on TikTok to use original music. e.l.f. currently lays claim to the fastest ever campaign on the platform to reach one billion views. The campaign used an original track, “Eyes, Lips, Face” by iLL Wayno and Holla FyeSixWun, which challenged users to use the product to express their authentic self. This campaign saw around five million TikTok users join the trend, contributing their own videos and well over 20 million streams for the song. Even celebrities jumped on the trend without any financial incentive. Why was this so incredibly successful? Again, its relatability spoke to Gen Z, not by directly advertising to them, but through branded music with the ability to go viral. 

Relatability is a concept that is hugely popular and valued by Gen Z consumers with #relatable currently sitting at 520.1 billion views on TikTok. amp’s research has shown that Gen Z feels that brands that use viral sounds are more relatable than brands that do not (Fig. 3). 

Brands should view short-form video platforms as an opportunity to be more creative with sound, to test their sonic assets to their full potential, and to listen to what their new audience wants, not tell them. 

Thinking back to our three problems caused by Gen Z’s love of viral audio, we now find ourselves with three solutions.

  1. Creating an original branded trending audio asset removes the expensive issue of copyright and potential muddled brand association often faced when licensing popular tracks. 
  1. The sea of creators who use the same trending audio on short-form platforms are now transformed from brand anonymity enablers to brand ambassadors.
  1. Brand sonic identities should not be left behind and reserved for other platforms, rather, these sonic assets should be celebrated and shared with the Gen Z audience, who will make it their own. 

Organically built brand recognition and trust will, in the long run, far outlast any passing trend at a formative time in Gen Z’s lives. Even past sonic assets like the Windows XP sounds, which are no longer in use, have become part of the zeitgeist, serving up a hint of nostalgia. Sounds that brands create now may even outlive their use in traditional advertising, carried into future nostalgia by Gen Alpha somewhere down the line.