From sight to sightless: Searching for a brand's voice

The Works digital producer Tomas Haffenden
By The Works digital producer Tomas Haffenden | 3 April 2018
Tomas Haffenden

Everywhere I turn, I see pictures of unattainably beautiful people advertising expensive things that I simply must have. But as Siri, Alexa and voice interfaces further embed themselves into our lives, how are brands going to adapt to a new sightless medium?

With almost 25% of brands reporting a focus on their voice UI capabilities for 2018, this trend has not gone unnoticed. But what of the other 75%?

It is easy to understand why brands continue to pay top dollar for beautiful ambassadors, influencers…. mascots, whatever you want to call them. Dressing one of these unfortunates in branded apparel triggers a very simple but powerful response in us mere mortals. Something deep inside confirms to us that if we buy those things we will assume the identity of the model. The six pack and bronzed physic a direct result of the trainers as opposed to the training. The Pumas will make me fast as Usain, the perfume as sexy as the sexy chap in the advert and the lipstick as kissable as the pouty lipped one from YouTube tutorial.

A single image can arguably produce much the same reactions in us regardless of age, sex or nationality. Voice/speech, on the other hand, is often touted as humanity’s defining quality, a complex and highly evolved form of communication. It is no surprise then, that finding a voice to represent your brand in the everyday, is not going to be as easy.

Listening, and speaking, are deeply personal experiences. It's not hard to think of voices you love, or hate, whether it be the smoothing tones of your grandma or the high-pitched irritations of other peoples’ children. For me, top of the pile has to be Attenborough. He holds a near God-like authority to me on environmental issues. ‘What David?, drinking my own bath water will save the planet?, get me a cup!’. But does David hold the same power over my choice of trainers? Probably not.

The point I’m making is unlike generalised ideas of beauty, a voice is far more personal and complex in how it drives or motivates us in different circumstances. Grabbing the next Olympic gold medallist off the production line and popping them in a sound booth is not going to cut the mustard. Looks, in many cases, do not go hand in hand with a voice; and in turn, a voice we like does not make us buy, in all circumstances either.

Even with a suitable voice the next challenge will be language itself. I’m not just talking national language but also the subtleties of dialect and slang. For voice to work we will require AI capable of first understanding and then adapting in real time to how each person uses language. Although currently out of our technological reach this is most definitely the direction we are heading in.

There is something incredibly powerful about intonation, pace and articulation. We all know someone who effortlessly holds court in meetings and at parties, effortlessly reading the room and changing infliction to maximise the hit of every one-liner and punchline. This is rare skill, even amongst humans, how will brands adapt to deliver voice in such a way that lands on such a personal level?

It is no secret that Amazon is already recognising intonation and emotion with a view to better respond to a user’s mood. Brands are not just looking for a voice, but the right voice, at the right moment, in the right situation.

Now with Alexa recording our every word and half of Australians using a voice interface daily, it will not be long before we have the data to inform such conversational strategy, but until then it will be down to brands to determine how to move from sight to sightless.

Tomas Haffenden is a digital producer at The Works.

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