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The Influencers

Alexa... How Do I Get a Brand Voice?

INFLUENCER: CORD Worldwide CEO Daniel Jackson offers insight for brands seeking the right voice

Alexa... How Do I Get a Brand Voice?

The irony should not be lost on anyone.

That ‘machines’ are appropriating voice; the most human of communications, is both remarkable and challenging. Remarkable that the technology can exist that allows systems to understand human interactions in their most naturalistic form. Alexa, Siri, Google Home, Cortana, Bixby. All our devices are desperate to speak to us.

And challenging in that this new technology has the ability to once again completely change how brands must communicate in order to survive. So with brands in real danger of losing their relevance in a voice-activated world, it’s beyond time to consider what on earth those of us who build brands and care about brand health can do to stay relevant.

In voice-activated systems, there’s no screen.

No visuals at all. And your 100 year old logo with its distinctive colours and shapes is utterly redundant.

Now this is not a new challenge. It’s one that radio and to an extent even TV (when ‘viewed’ as a low engagement medium – second screen and all that) have been addressing for some time.

The need to convey a logo in sound is the essence of the audio / sonic / sound branding argument. Simplistically, I’d say that the easiest way to brand a company in sound is to SAY the name of your company. Sounds simple, usually isn’t. To make the most of the opportunity, a sonic logo can use music or sound design as an accompaniment.

Just designing the logo is a complex task that requires specialist skills. I’ve spent the last 20 years doing it and the difficulties still amaze me every day.

Written Tone of Voice (ToV) is multi-dimensional. Spoken ToV raises the complexity by unfathomable multiples

Written ToV means choosing a language (the system), a lexicon (the words, a subset of the language) and topics or subjects on which to write. Consistently applied, when a brand has a Tone of Voice it appears to have a style and a point of view that matches or appeals to its audience.

Now take all of that and add gender. That gets divisive pretty quickly. Add the vocal qualities of aging, or pitch. And try regional accents in every language. Also, ensure that tone of voice is contextually appropriate.

And now consider the hypothetical. That when a listener hears a voice, they will tend to picture the speaker; their appearance, personality and behaviour, and that the assumptions that are made, if not controlled by the brand, may prove divisive or damaging.

Voice is now in the realm of artificial intelligence and it’s engaged in dialogue

In the distant, analogue past, one-way was the only way. The brand could craft its simple messages, writing expert copy and delivering beautifully produced voice-overs on glossy TV ads. And then everyone involved could go to lunch. These were the good times. A golden age for advertisers and agencies, when messages could be sent with the expectation – but no proof – that they would be received.

Around 30 years ago brands embraced dialogue. They opened call centres and called themselves Direct Line and First Direct. These companies and many others started to engage with the challenges of dialogue; simplistically that ‘what’ you say and ‘how’ you say it could have a massive impact on brand health and business performance. 

Brand lexicons became a reality as companies as well-respected as Disney made sure that the word ‘magical’ was a part of any phone conversation about their theme parks.

And so much research was completed in the 1990s on the subjective qualities of different regional accents. Daily newspaper articles on how ‘trustworthy’ Scottish accents were or negative perceptions of the Birmingham accent were used to justify office locations, hiring strategies and sales or service training.

Around the millennium, voice started its journey towards automation as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) took many of the places of call centre humans. ‘For new accounts, press 1…for all other enquiries, please hold’. The voice on the IVR was a serious choice at the time as enlightened brands sought to build process and profit from choosing the right voice to read out the prompts required to run the IVR. I was a big advocate for choosing the right voice at this time but looking back, I’m not so sure this was an important choice. IVR was (and is) a pretty annoying technology so no matter how good the voice, the context is negative. And how many great IVR voices can you (or I) name now? Why was IVR annoying? Perhaps it’s because it was artificial without being intelligent. And it wasn’t interactive in a humanistic way. Imagine having a conversation in real life where you have to press 3 to find out the time?

Still, some of us in the audio branding industry developed tools at this time for selecting brand voices and developing a spoken tone of voice. Then we mainly put them on a long-forgotten back-up hard drive and got on with music and sound design as the brand’s core audio assets.

Which brings us up to date, as the need to track down a USB1 cable and restore the old back-up. The difference today is that interaction is humanistic and that the use of voice-activation is becoming widespread and ubiquitous. Which means the opportunity to build brand health through automated brand dialogue is clear and present.

What now?

Firstly, a commitment to being relevant in a world without screens is needed. Most brands have their heads in the sand on this matter or at best are in a ‘wait and see’ pattern. This will be fatal. Human interaction doesn’t require a keyboard and QWERTY will be a relic of history before you know it.

Secondly, taking voice seriously means understanding the type of dialogue your audience wants, responding to the questions they will ask and building intelligence into the brand. Years of social media means that most brands have the data to understand their audience. Now is the time to mine it.

Lastly, understand that choosing the voice of the brand is crazily complex so finding a model, a system or a guide is vital to speed progress and mitigate risk.

Here's how to choose your brand voice:

- Step 1: Workshop to define the psychometric profile of the character behind the voice.

- Step 2: Map personality traits to a combination of 14 vocal attributes.

- Step 3: Use the above as the brief for finding the voice talent to represent your brand.

- Step 4: Review voices, make choices, research and create assets.

- Step 5: Ensure that voices fit context, refine, research, continuously improve.

Daniel Jackson is CEO of CORD Worldwide

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Genre: Music & Sound Design , Strategy/Insight