Cell phones have become an integral part of most people’s daily lives. In fact, it is such a part of my life that if I happen to forget it at home or in my car, or worse yet I forgot to charge it and my battery goes dead, I freak out because I feel like a major life function has been snatched away from me. Sure, it sounds overly dramatic, but I know that I am not alone here. My cell phone contains all of my personal and business contact numbers – without it I cannot reach anyone. The only numbers that I remember anymore are the quick dial numbers in my cell phone. It is no wonder, given our attachment to our phones, that customization has become so prevalent. Cell phone screensavers, photos, ring tones, cases, faceplates, etc. have become important forms of self-expression. As such, there are new opportunities to use these items for branding purposes, especially ringtones.

Audio branding can be a very powerful tool that can either enhance your brand or tarnish it. When it works it works – who does not recall the sound of the General Lee’s horn in the Dukes of Hazard or the tick, tick, tick of the Sixty Minutes clock or the theme from Mission Impossible? But, when utilized out of context, audio branding attempts often end in disaster – ever mouse over an Internet ad at work and had some sound component triggered? Did everyone in your office notice the loud and obnoxious noise emanating from your office or cubical and figure out that you were reading the sports news rather than working?

Ringtones clearly provide a great opportunity for branding, especially in the entertainment industry. Some of the most popular downloads are for television and movie theme songs. With the ability to set a specific ring for each number saved within a cell’s phone book, the number of potential ringtones downloaded by each user is only limited by the size of their social network. For me, each time I add a phone number to my phone book I spend my next few minutes of free time looking for a ringtone that specifically reminds me of that person so that I can recognize that it is them without looking at the screen when it rings. For example, every time a certain friend calls me, the Godfather theme plays, and people around me almost invariable stop and ask, “Is that the theme from the Godfather,” which proves the power of these audio snippets.

The main concern with any audio branding effort, and ringtones are no exception, is whether or not people will find the sound unduly intrusive or annoying. I do not think I would like to be sitting at dinner with some important business associates and have the theme from the A-Team come blaring out of my pocket as my phone rings. Unfortunately, in the world of ringtones, the creator has little or no control over the context in which the ringtone will appear – the environment is far too dynamic. Cell phones can ring at any time and the context is therefore dependent upon incoming calls, the place the cell user happens to be at the time, etc. In additional, while one person may find a specific ringer entertaining or funny, another many find it rude or offensive. How a ringtone is perceived is also a function of the mood of the person hearing it.

Thankfully, cell phones have become so ubiquitous that in most situations people have learned to ignore annoying rings and to turn off their own ringers in situations where they would most likely be intrusive and/or annoying. Regardless, ringtones represent a significant marketing opportunity and their popularity will continue to grow.