Credit Card Jingles Find Silence at Payment Terminals

Aging hardware and software at the POS and retailer pushback have muted sonic logos distributed by major credit card companies.

January 17, 2023

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Visa, Mastercard and American Express all have developed a “signature sound” that plays when a customer makes a purchase at payment terminal, but these so-called sonic logos are mostly silent due to old hardware, out-of-date software and retailer reluctance, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The point of sonic logos is to help consumers recall the brand, promote marketing continuity and develop trust with the company by way of verification. Credit card companies say that a sonic logo can tell the customer they are shopping with a trusted merchant, likening the sound to a credit card logo on store windows.

“Especially in the financial world, there’s some amount of forging trust,” Dexter Garcia, a co-founder and chief of strategy at Audio UX, a New York-based audio branding agency, told the Journal.

But credit card companies are also trying to reclaim their identity as more customers pay with their mobile phones and may not notice which card they’re paying with, according to Dominic Burnham, a sonic brand consultant at Sydney-based agency Resonance.

“Apple acts as my payment provider, and when asked how I’m going to pay for something, I say, ‘On my watch’ or ‘On my phone,’ not ‘With my Visa’,” he told the Journal. “Payment providers are sandwiched between retailers and tech platforms, both of whom are incentivized to own the point-of-sale moment sonically.”

“There are many complexities in physical retail, including technical and point-of-sale life cycle,” a spokeswoman from Visa told the Journal. “The massive impact of COVID-19 on physical retail over the last three years has also certainly had an impact.”

Mastercard’s 1.3-second sound was launched in 2019 and has been adopted in Australia and Indonesia, among other countries, but is struggling to find implementation in U.S. and Europe.

“It is heavy lifting, and it is a long haul,” a Mastercard spokesperson told the Journal, describing the process of securing the backing of multinational banks, tech manufacturers and merchants.

A spokeswoman for American Express told the Journal that its sonic logo plays on-brand videos but not at any payment terminals.

“If they add the sound feature, I will definitely be against it,” Parviz Mukhamadkulov told the Journal. He is the founder of Poetica Coffee, a chain of New York cafes that uses a point-of-sale system that doesn’t play branded tunes when customers pay. “We try to keep things simple in Poetica, where our customers can enjoy a good time with their friends and family with no ads.”

Tech issues are also a hurdle for sonic logos. The makers of payment terminals or merchants themselves are in charge of the payment application, and this can hold back the use of the sounds, according to the Visa spokeswoman.

Visa offers what it calls “multisensory brand assets” for point-of-sale terminals, including animations “to create the best user experience,” the spokeswoman told the Journal. Some stores that either don’t have sound capabilities or are already surrounded by noise, might choose simply to play a Visa animation on the point-of-sale terminal, she said.

Mastercard has seen a sonic logo delay due to older payment systems that can only beep when a payment is processed, and their owners have little financial incentive to update, the company spokesman told the Journal. Other retailers can be slow or reluctant to update their systems’ software to play the sonic logo, and Mastercard hasn’t secured integrations with all suppliers of card-processing tech systems, he said.

Some retailers would be willing to have the sounds if there was some sort of compensation, reports the Journal, especially given the high cost of swipe fees and the duopoly  Visa and Mastercard have in the credit card market.

Convenience store swipe fees were $14 billion in 2021, a 26% increase over the year prior and were about 33% higher than that over the first half of 2022.

In May 2022, NACS General Counsel Doug Kantor testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, underscoring the exorbitant swipe fees levied on retailers and how those fees are the direct result of price-fixing by Visa and Mastercard.

NACS is asking its members to contact their members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the Credit Card Competition Act, S. 4674 and H.R. 8874, using the NACS Grassroots Portal. Congress must act to ensure that there is price competition on swipe fees and enable the U.S. to have an innovative and efficient credit card market.