Sssh. Listen. Brands need voices. Literally.

17 Apr 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
Sssh. Listen. Brands need voices. Literally.

Talking AI devices are taking over, and the prize for the brands that know how to exploit them will be huge, writes Dominic Mills

If you want to have some fun, listen to this Wheaties cereal jingle from 1926. It’s probably the first example of a brand trying to create a sound it could own. It seems to have worked. According to General Mills (no relation...tee hee), it saved the cereal from oblivion.

Fast forward 90 years, and the idea of brands owning a sound, a tone, a voice, is once again rising up the agenda, thanks to the advent of voice - whether through Amazon’s Alexa, Siri, Samsung’s Bixby and the latest addition, Google’s Home.

Of course, brands have always talked about ‘tone of voice’. But this has usually been a loose term - generally taken to mean how a brand defines its personality and conveys its values through the written word. When people talked about ‘tone of voice’ they rarely meant it literally.

We’re not quite there yet, where people will interact on a predominantly-voice, or voice-only basis, with brands. Well, actually, we sort of are if you include telephone banking stuff and call-centre interactions, but these are mostly humans.

I’m talking here more about the AI-led route, where speech recognition technology and natural language processing (NLP) techniques are advancing rapidly. According to scientists, speech recognition error rates are about 5% - the same as humans. Every percentage point decrease will rapidly accelerate consumer uptake of voice technology.

Hello, Google (and Alexa)

It’ll even crack accents at some point meaning, say, Scottish guys like these won’t get stuck in automated lifts again.

Now some parts of the ad industry are beginning to think hard about the implications of this for brands. Earlier this month, Mindshare and JWT produced a fascinating study.

Indeed, some brands are already experimenting with it, albeit in limited ways. Via Alexa’s Skills platform, Johnnie Walker has devised an app that allows users to ask about whisky recommendations (as you do). BMW and Just Eat also offer Skills access. It’s limited - it’s neither genuinely interactive, nor does it allow brands to create their own, unique voice.


A whopper whoopsie

And in the US last week, Burger King ran into some trouble with Google when it ran a TV ad (above) designed to stimulate Google Home into voicing the virtues of its Whopper. It’s sort of funny sitting over here, but you can see why Google stymied it and why consumers might feel invaded.

But it’s a signal of the future.

So what are the big issues that brands need to face up to?

- Brands will have to figure out how they deal with the likes of Amazon, Google, Apple and so on. Via voice, these tech giants are taking ownership of the home environment

- Privacy, in the widest sense of the word, whether it’s the fear of being overheard or the dislike of being interrupted by commercial messages

- Voice liberates us from the screen, so brands will have to consider alternatives to visual cues to get top of mind in, for example, voice search

- Paid search for voice is unlikely. Brands will therefore have to develop ‘assistant optimisation’ - let’s call it AO - skills in order to get chosen by voice assistants

- Alternatives to search and AO will become more important. Mindshare suggests affiliate models will come to the fore - handing even more power to Alexa and co

- Get on board with IoT technology, wherever that takes them including, for example, connected packaging or household white goods. This could even extend to OOH sites. It’s possible to see how, once they can put aside their natural reluctance to do this in a public place, consumers can interact by voice with a poster site. See a car you like the look of? Just ask the poster site for the nearest dealers

- Developing content for chatbots so consumers can enjoy (maybe that’s not the right word) ‘chat’ experiences with brands

- Developing relevant content delivered by voice. This is complicated, since it involves not only getting the right content, but also - and this is where we go back to the ‘tone of voice’ premise - getting every detail of the communication right: accent, words, language, sentence structure, personality and so on nailed down to a precise degree.

But the prize is significant. According to Neuro Insight research for JWT and Mindshare, saying a brand name drives stronger emotional responses than typing it in. It follows then that being able to converse with one could strengthen its hold on the consumer.

And this is where it gets fun. Copywriters and voice-over artists who might have feared marginalisation will be in vogue. Their skills will be paramount.

Matching the voice to the brand will be an art form. Who, for example, would be the voice of Johnnie Walker? Certainly not David Beckham, despite his best efforts for Haig Clubman. No, maybe Sean Connery, Alex Ferguson or David Tennant.

If there was a choice, die-hard Scots nationalists might go for Alex Salmond or even Nicola Sturgeon.

Closer to home, who might you choose from adland? For my financial services brand I might choose the dulcet tones of Newsworks’ Denise Turner, whose soft hints of Ulster (she’s from Lurgan, Co. Armagh) strike just the right notes of probity and warmth.

Of course, if my bank wanted to tell me off it might prefer the voice of UKOM chair Douglas McArthur, aka the Dundee Exocet. He’d persuade me to pay off my overdraft without delay.

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