Behind the design: creating the sonic brand for Hulu.

From the start, we knew it was critical to design a sonic brand and audio signature for Hulu that was highly memorable and created a positive emotional response to the brand. Cinematic, not digital and something that ignited a sense of anticipation and excitement in the audience.

We had already developed a set of global design principles for Hulu: always a story; delightfully human; simply essential; and do it different. As with the brand identity and system, we used these principles to underpin the story and intention for the sonic brand.

The HBO static or the THX mnemonic are often used as benchmarks for their instant recognition and ability to spark a subliminal emotional response. The pavlovian effect we get from hearing these is instantly transportational: we know what’s coming will be entirely gripping and fully immersive.

Setting the baseline with AI.
Our journey to create the sonic signature for Hulu began with the in-house team doing a lot of groundwork and research to understand what made a mnemonic memorable — from analysing many different existing sonic ID’s from well-known brands in the entertainment industry to those like Intel and Apple in the wider context to uncover what made them tick. They also ran the incumbent Hulu sound through the analysis. We used the ‘Veritonic’ audio intelligence platform – which uses machine listening and learning – to study each brand mnemonic and give each a score based on indexes like recall, authenticity, positivity and uniqueness. The existing Hulu audio signature, although sounding beautiful, lacked memorability and impact, giving it a low score in the AI analysis.

This laid the groundwork and a benchmark to reach for and beat.

Sound with story.
We needed to create a sound that felt authentic to Hulu and the story we were developing for the brand. Tying in with the ‘One Hulu’ project, we needed to unify the sonic identity with the development of the ‘vessel’ concept. So it couldn’t simply beat the AI machine, it had to have a story and a connection to the brand system.

As a brand, Hulu is packed with surprises, swagger and confidence. Equally, Hulu wants to bring as many people along for the ride as possible. We needed to be distinct but not divisive; rebellious but still wholly inviting. We also needed to root the approach in the core idea behind the brand: that Hulu is a ‘vessel – a holder of precious things’. There was something tactile, physical and organic in that idea that gave a clear indication of the sonic aesthetic we should try to capture.

Three zones of exploration.
We invited a range of audio experts to submit their vision for our brief, which we broke the task down into three themes for exploration. Firstly, a melodic approach that would define a unique riff or hook. Something instantly recognisable and easy to recall, almost hummable. Crucially we needed clear Hulu provenance to the note sequence and instrumentation. We did not want to sound like a tech or telecoms company. Secondly, with a name as unique as Hulu, we wanted to explore approaches that vocalised the name. We were looking for a sensory — potentially subliminal — expression that inherently linked the name with the content. Finally, we wanted to see if we could do what HBO and THX were doing so successfully: a sound design approach that evoked the booting up of big-screen technology. We wanted our own aesthetic that would conjure up an inclusive feeling of collective viewing and an immersion in a story.

We then explored a wide range of expressions: from using the DNA of the existing sound to testing completely new and far-reaching ideas. We were keen to find a unique blend of tactility and tech. Marrying human-made, physical sounds and crisp, digital precision.

Through several weeks of development — running multiple directions concurrently and producing over seventy demos — we refined and honed. Ultimately we found our focus with an approach that cleverly united the first and third of our buckets of exploration.

A new sonic signature.
Working with audio partner Zelig, we developed over 50 different iterations and micro variations, drawing on the in-house teams and resident musical expert at Hulu to hone the perfect sonic signature.

The result: a distinct blend of content and anticipation; positivity and presence. The full brand mnemonic accompanies the Network ID, itself a key transportational brand asset.

A shimmer of colour and light pressurises the frame. A blend of sounds that celebrate the stories that connect us: fragments of dialogue; hints of score; the buzz of an auditorium, suggests depth and range of content and the anticipation of the experience.

In an instant the light pops, the Hulu logo materialises immediately centre frame. A mnemonic that is instant, tactile, and physical, signals its arrival. The four letters in the name Hulu capture the beat of the story, creating a sense of instantaneity for streaming and a finger snap immediacy that feels human.

The vessel arrives deftly. The essential chime: pure, resonant and concise. A warm and delightful uplift as the logo is framed. Then an immersive and sensational transition takes us deep into the Hulu world and right to our shows.

We carry these sonic signatures through all key brand interactions. Platform startups, originals pre-rolls and campaign end tags all share the same distinct DNA.

Geeking out on the detail.
If you really want to geek out, this is how the sonic identity is forensically broken down. Subtle tremolo strings playing Emaj accompanied with an anticipatory audience murmur. We pause as 4 swift ascending wooden clicks articulate the Hulu logo animation. We then launch into the green space device with a broad layered Emaj9 chord with a deep sub-bass hit, the suspended 9th note creating a sense of anticipation and excitement. The release arrives with a 1st inversion chord of E sung by a choir using the mmm vowel accompanied with a subtle synth and sub-bass layer, transitioning the viewer into the content.

Beating the AI.
Testing the final sonic signature against Veritonic audio intelligence platform, the new sonic ID not only beat the existing Hulu sonic signature but also elevated itself to the top of the high-profile competitor rankings, and paving the way for a distinct sonic dimension to the new ‘One Hulu’ brand experience.