By some estimates, it’s played once every five minutes somewhere in the world. A simple five-note mnemonic tune composed 20 years ago that, with the help of a clever marketing slogan, helped Intel become one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
To understand the story behind the Intel sound mark or “bong” as it is known, you have to go back to the late 1980s.
Listen to the Intel Bong
Intel had a problem. A rapid development cycle meant microprocessor speed and capability were advancing quickly, but manufacturers weren’t keeping up with the cutting edge. Manufacturers were reluctant to upgrade from the 286 chip to the 386, and consumers didn’t know enough to care.
“Intel’s whole reason for existence was to push technology as fast as you can push it and then help the world adopt it so that everybody advances. And then do it again,” recalls Dennis Carter, Intel’s then-marketing chief. “1989 rolls around and we’ve introduced the 386 several years before. It’s a very successful product, but it’s not displacing the previous generation and that’s a concern.”
Instead of continuing to market to manufacturers, the company decided on a new approach. In 1989, Carter led a pilot program in Denver that targeted consumers with a simple billboard campaign that became infamously known inside and outside Intel as the Red X campaign. It featured a crossed-out “286” with “386” written over it in graffiti. As Michael Malone wrote in his new book, “The Intel Trinity,” it was a big risk that paid off, ushering in a new era in marketing where semiconductor suppliers could communicate directly with consumers. Before long, customers began asking for the 386 by name and manufacturers were forced to bake it into their products.
The campaign was a success, but Intel would soon need a way to replicate the results on a much larger scale, and for a newer medium.
The Audio Component
After a court ruling stripped the naming trademarks for the 386 and 486, Carter looked for ways to evangelize Intel itself rather than specific processors. This would lead to the genesis of the Intel Inside campaign, launched in 1991 with the now-famous Intel swirl logo.
Then in 1994, Intel was ready to expand to television, presenting a new set of challenges.
“Nobody was going to run a 30-second ad with the logo there the whole time, it would look stupid. An audio component seemed like it would work really well,” Carter said.
That audio component would become what might be the most iconic three seconds of branded audio ever recorded: the Intel bong sound.
Five Perfect Notes
Walter Werzowa is an Austrian native who’d achieved a measure of fame in the ‘80s with the electronica band Edelweiss, which sold more than 5 million records. Following the group’s disbandment, Werzowa moved to the United States to study film music at USC.
The Intel gig came by way of Kyle Cooper, a friend employed at R/GA LA, hired by Carter to turn the Intel swirl into the Intel spiral animation. Werzowa says he didn’t get much direction to compose the accompanying jingle.
“The sound needed to convey reliability, innovation and trust,” Werzowa said.
He says the “Intel Inside” tagline triggered a melody in his head, and those were the notes that became the Intel bong sound: D flat, D flat, G flat, D flat, A flat. The rhythm, he says, was inspired by the syllables of the tagline.
Werzowa then spent the following weeks refining the five-note sequence into the jingle that’s since become so recognizable. Each of the five tones is a blend of various synthesizers – mostly a lot of xylophone and marimba.
Interestingly, Werzowa and Intel discovered that the sound of the notes was at least as important as the melody itself. Among a 60-person focus group, researchers found only 80 percent of participants recognized the correct melody played on a violin, but 100 percent recognized it with the proper sound – even when an incorrect note was added.
A Bong by Any Other Sound (How Did a Jingle Become a Bong?)
The original Intel Bong that debuted in 1994
Since the original jingle premiered in 1994, Werzowa says he’s updated it every two to three years. Now that the sound is globally recognizable, Intel is much more hands-on. The chipmaker’s in-house creatives, marketing team and legal counsel all provide input before any changes can be made.
It’s hard to count how many versions the bong sound has gone through over 20 years, but while the visuals have changed and some bass has been added, the essential five-note sequence remains the same.
Even will.i.am’s brief tenure as Intel’s director of creative innovation hasn’t had much impact, although the Black Eyed Peas frontman sampled the jingle for his 2013 track “Geekin.”
Perhaps the most creative iteration so far is from a group of Intel engineers in Finland, who turned themselves into human cannonballs, and launched into a giant row of chimes – likely with the aid of some video-editing wizardry.
While Intel has brought in a new chief marketing officer to revamp its brand image and marketing programs, it’s not clear whether the tune will change, go away, or morph into something new. Whatever the jingle might sound like in the future, Werzowa says one thing is certain in his mind: It’s not likely to be phased out any time soon.
“I cannot imagine that. The mnemonic is worth millions of dollars,” he said.
This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.