If Barbie were a song, what would she sound like?
The question sat in Tena Clark's mind as she drove through downtown Los Angeles last fall. Would Barbie be three notes, or four? Would they cascade up or down?
The answers were no small matter. With Barbie's sales sagging, toy maker Mattel Inc. had turned to Clark, a pioneer in the emerging field of "sonic branding," to help give the icon of American beauty a marketing face-lift.
Recent scientific research had suggested that distinct combinations of just a few notes -- known in the advertising world as a sonic brand -- could have more influence on consumers than the longer, frequently changing jingles Mattel had used for years.
Clark's mission was to develop a sonic brand that would define Barbie and become as recognizable as McDonald's golden arches, the five tones that conclude Intel's television ads or NBC's three-bell chime.
"There's nothing more powerful than music," said Clark, the 52-year-old founder of Pasadena-based DMI Music & Media Solutions. "Music is processed immediately in the brain's emotional core. If we can harness that, advertising will impact people in ways they've never imagined."
Corporate America is beginning to agree. Dozens of the world's largest companies are developing sonic advertising campaigns to compete with those that have emerged in the last few years, such as Yahoo's yodel and McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It." A Motorola musical burst -- "Hello Moto" -- has been remade into a ring tone and a hit song in Asia.
In anticipation of the World Cup soccer tournament, a five-note melody advertising the soccer group FIFA was mixed into songs by pop star Shakira and the classical group Il Divo.
Most sonic brands are versatile enough to be expanded into full songs. But typically, they are played alone as a three- or four-note melody so memorable, marketers hope, that they cut through the media clutter and lodge indelibly in consumers' brains.
"There are so many more media options now that it's important to have a song that can link television commercials, websites and the tunes that play on a kid's cellphone," said Richard Dickson, a senior vice president at Mattel Brands. "We're constantly looking for new ways to communicate with consumers that involve all the senses."
In an interview, Dickson declined to discuss advertising plans for Barbie. Executives at the El Segundo-based toy giant said sonic branding was only one of many options the company was considering.
But few sonic campaigns will be more closely watched than Barbie's, if Mattel moves ahead with it this year. With more than $1 billion in worldwide sales last year, the doll is one of the biggest products yet to get a sonic makeover.
Mattel began searching for a fresh marketing approach after Barbie's sales slipped 13% last year in the face of new competitors such as the saucy Bratz dolls. Clark pitched Mattel on a three-note sonic brand that could emanate from anywhere: TV commercials, store sound systems, display aisles, cellphones, speakers installed in Barbie boxes, Barbie movies and DVDs -- even the horn on Barbie bikes.
"Someday a little girl will walk through a store with her parents, and she'll faintly hear a few notes, and will turn to her dad and say, 'I want a Barbie doll,' " Clark said.
At first glance, Clark might seem an unusual choice to help revamp the image of such a classic American toy. A white, churchgoing lesbian from racially segregated Mississippi, Clark made her bones writing sultry R&B; ballads.
But since starting her advertising firm in 1997, she has developed some of Madison Avenue's most successful sonic brands -- including McDonald's "Have You Had Your Break Today?"
To prepare for the Mattel assignment, Clark interviewed executives and surveyed previous Barbie advertising campaigns. Her conclusion: Barbie owners were smart, strong girls who were members of a special club. While Bratz dolls bared their midriff, Barbie didn't need to grow up too fast or obsess over boys or clothes.
Though Barbie has been derided by critics for fostering unhealthy body images and for teaching little girls to crave fashion and glamour, Clark thought her sonic brand could express the more empowering aspects of the doll.
"I wanted to find a way to say to little girls, 'This is your time to play and be young,' " Clark said. "This brand is a cause. I wanted something that would make a difference."
That required finding just the right notes. Months after pitching her idea to Mattel, Clark sat in slow-moving traffic on the 110 freeway, puzzling over chords. For weeks, she had experimented with various tone combinations. In the car or walking through the grocery store, she would suddenly hum a few notes to see whether they captured something Barbie-ish. Sometimes, she'd call her own voice mail to record a snippet of a tune that occurred to her.
But nothing seemed quite right.
As Clark's black BMW crept past smog-dusted palms and freeway murals, she took another stab at the question consuming her: If Barbie were a song, what would she sound like?
All she heard were the honks of frustrated drivers.
Clark's path toward sonic branding began in her Mississippi youth, where she was raised by a songwriting mother. After college, Clark relocated to Nashville, hoping to make it big in the music industry. She had some initial success writing songs for Vesta Williams and Dionne Warwick, but she quickly decided that composing tunes for commercials was a better way to pay the bills.
It didn't take her long to become convinced that most advertising jingles weren't very persuasive. Most of the songs used in advertisements were too long and complicated, Clark thought, and companies discarded them too quickly.
Those problems are compounded when companies license songs by popular bands. For instance, in 2002, General Motors Corp. began using a Led Zeppelin tune to advertise the Cadillac, hoping to attract aging baby boomers. But for every consumer who associated Zeppelin with the first kiss, Clark thought, there was another who identified the band with a relationship gone sour.
Clark and a handful of other renegades drew inspiration from Intel's use of five tones at the end of each television commercial. The computer chip manufacturer was striving for a song that would make the inside of a computer more welcoming. They asked a struggling Austrian pop composer to write a three-second tune. The five tones he produced in 1994 are among the most recognized songs in the world today, and are estimated to play at least once every five minutes somewhere around the globe.
Clark and other sonic branders thought the chimes worked because the song was short, the melody was original, and Intel was committed to using it for years.
Around the same time, research on how the brain processes music made a case for why three- or four-note songs could sell millions of plastic dolls or hamburgers.
In the late 1990s, scientists at the University of Montreal, Cornell University and other institutions discovered that when people listened to music, a spot in the brain known as Brodmann's area 18 and 19 became active. The region, also known as the "mind's eye," plays a role in how emotions, the imagination and memories form.
In one study, a woman who had sustained brain damage to both her frontal lobes didn't appear to suffer diminished speech or intellectual capacity. But she could no longer recognize melodies, no matter how many times they were played.
However, when the woman heard slow music, her body responded as if she were sad, while fast-paced songs elicited physical reactions associated with happiness. The results suggested that music could influence emotions even when listeners couldn't fully hear what was playing.
Marketers such as Clark pounced on the research and got Madison Avenue to follow.
Music now rivals visual logos and slogans as an advertising battleground. Procter & Gamble Co. has experimented with in-store motion sensors that play the Charmin toilet tissue jingle when shoppers pass by its shelves. Companies are working sonic brands into in-store music and other background sounds.
"The average shopper walks into a supermarket knowing they want toilet paper but not deciding what brand to buy until they are about to pull something off the shelves," said Andy Bateman of McCann Worldgroup, one of the world's largest advertising agencies. "We want to do everything we can to make our brand pop into their minds right before they reach out."
But persuading companies to use a sonic brand is sometimes easier than finding the song itself, as Clark discovered with Mattel.
Clark began exploring Barbie in a universally familiar way: by taking off the doll's clothes. To get in touch with her inner Barbie, Clark started paying close attention to pink, despite her personal preference for darker clothing. She made lists of Barbie's attributes and searched for words that rhymed with "magical" and "super-glam."
With the deadline drawing near, Clark was at a loss.
Then, driving down the 110 freeway last fall, she began pondering why Barbie had entranced her as a child. She thought about her childhood in the segregated town of Waynesboro, Miss., population 2,000. Her African American nanny, Virgie, had taught her about the dignity of being different. When boys teased Clark for not wanting a boyfriend or for choosing to play the drums rather than the clarinet, Clark turned to her record player and Barbie dolls for solace.
Her thoughts turned to her five nieces in Alabama, who were all under the age of 10.
"They are constantly torn between what they want to be doing -- playing with Barbie -- and the other world adults impose on them, where labels and race and identity matter," Clark said.
Almost like Barbie magic, three notes popped into her head. She began to arrange the three-note melody into the verses, chorus and bridge of a complete song. She worked out stanzas of lyrics, and began thinking through hip-hop and rock arrangements. Within minutes, she had almost everything worked out.
"God made me different, made me a lesbian, so that I could write songs that help little girls embrace all the good in themselves, all the magic and happiness in their lives," Clark later said. "Everyone talks about the science of marketing and how the brain hears music. But a three-note melody works because it touches something emotional."
She had created something, she hoped, that would draw her nieces -- and millions of other girls -- to Barbie, offering them the same escape she had enjoyed growing up.