Google strategist: What it's going to take to build brand in a voice era

As the era of voice-based interactions comes to the fore, there are big questions to be answered around how organisations develop their brand voice, says strategist at ustwo event

It’s time to challenge the assumption marketers have sole responsibility for deciding what the voice of a brand sounds like, Google strategist, Sam Payne, claims.

Speaking from his personal experiences around voice interface development at an event held by digital agency, ustwo, Payne said we’re rapidly approach the time when organisations must answer a fresh, big question: What does my brand sound like?

“As an industry, we’ve never taken the time to answer that question,” he told attendees.  Payne sits in Google’s Zoo, a creative thinktank division that assists brands with utilising emerging technology.

Historically, customer service professionals have a strong perspective on what a brand should sound like, Payne said. “Then there are the more traditional ways brands use voice, such as hiring Morgan Freeman or Patrick Stewart to speak on their behalf, through voiceovers, or implied or explicit endorsement,” he said.  

“But as an industry, we should challenge the default assumption that marketing should take on the sole responsibility for deciding the voice of the brand.

“In an endorsement conversation, you want a performance – a tone, certain delivery and something that delivers on an immediate campaign or KPI for a Christmas campaign. The challenge we’ve come to quite a lot as we have been helping brands understand voice interaction in great detail, is that it’s not a temporary thing. It’s an enduring thing, much like the colour of your brand. It is a big call. That has been one of the most interesting things we’ve come across so far.”

At this early stage of voice, the question is not what my brand does or should sound like, but what dynamics and tools should I be using to define it, Payne continued. This leads to another big question: Can you event have a voice that lasts and stands the test of time?

“These tools haven’t been created yet,” he said. “That point in which we moved from copy-led communications to something that’s much more graphic, and made choices about paring back the articulation of language and speaking more visually – that is potentially comparable to what we’ve about to see with voice.”

Read more: 8 brands using voice activation to boost brand engagement

Payne also recommended operations teams as a key contributor to the way ‘voice’ as a brand is developed. But whatever the approach, the key is to break down organisational silos to ensure voice is a whole-of-company representative.

“Because it shouldn’t just sit with marketing,” Payne added.

3 early lessons in voice interfaces

With so many questions around how voice will impact consumer-to-brand interaction, Payne offered up three early lessons from his voice interface development experiences to date. The first is if you don’t plan to apply personality, users will do it for you.

“It’s baked into our make-up as homo sapiens,” he said. “We’re so much more advanced as machines than these machines. We can detect the tiniest nuance in conversation, tone. The complexity of it is it sits beneath the surface.

“The partners we have worked with have all resisted the opportunity to better define their personality until we get into prototyping. Then everyone has realised it needs to be done. Because the way we’ve had to plan for personality in the past has been conservative, about damage control and broadcast. Even social spaces have become a broadcast issue due to their scale and reach. We’re talking about one-to-one interactions here.

“Admittedly, there are risks, but the far greater risk is letting that person down and they never interact with you again.”

The second takeaway for Payne is that we as consumers have made things personal and take privacy for granted. While manageable on a device like a smartphone, that’s much more difficult to address with a voice speaker in public spaces.

“It’s less about personal details or security information or even things that are embarrassing, it’s things like me not wanting my kid to ask Amazon Alexa if Santa is real,” Payne said.  

“This is going to change the way we evolve culturally and raises all sorts of questions around things we have taken for granted so far. We have to think about how families and visitors interact with voice. And it’s particularly important for those emotionally-led brands.”  

Payne’s third point was that “good conversation is very hard to find”. He noted just how complex and contextual human conversations can get as a way of illustrating the challenges in voice interfaces, pointing out that it’s not as simple as going from point A to point B.  

“The context of conversations is just so different. And the complexity of conversation is something we as humans take for granted,” he said.

“We are quick to run past the success – the natural language processing is really impressive now - but the system capable of understanding the many thread and nuances of our conversations, which come from thousands of years of us being social animals, is potentially some way away.”

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