A sound approach


Voice, sound and gesture are about to take over from text. At SXSW, a festival in Austin, Texas, celebrating technology and innovation, panels and demonstrations were showcasing hardware for AI-powered voice assistants, audio assistants and design for a screenless future.

As AI emerges as the engine to power our digital lives, there were tangible examples of how brands are making a move from the visual web to the audio web. Google set up a Fun House to show how voice can control a connected home and make life easier – closing blinds, playing music and providing relevant information in response to voice commands. As Brad Abrams, group product manager at Google Assistant, told Adweek, “When technology gets out of the way, it frees up time for what really matters.”

Bose demonstrated a prototype at SXSW – sunglasses with a smart audio interface using AI feeds to deliver oral information. With the tagline “Hear what you see”, Bose’s proposition is that audio is more useful than screen-based information for reacting to the world. As Marie Stafford from JWT Intelligence reports, these demonstrations “point to an emerging future in which our interactions with technology become ever more frictionless and natural – the technology itself is becoming ambient and invisible”.

As spoken information becomes a dominant way to engage with the world, brands and marketers need to consider how to design impactful audio experiences. What are the ways to expand brand personality to include voice and define a spoken style?

Branded content

Both Amazon and Google are encouraging marketers to build applications that provide branded content to users of Alexa, Google Assistant and Google Home. These “skills” or applications enable brands to offer useful services such as Easyjet’s flight checker, or education such as Johnnie Walker’s Whiskey Tasting skill on Amazon.

FMCG brands will inevitably broaden existing digital content strategies to develop voice content that either provides utility (recipes, tutorials, ingredient stories) or entertainment to deepen the relationship with the brand. However, like mobile applications before them, the challenge for brands is to make consumers aware that these voice tools and experiences exist – not only is an awareness campaign needed, but education about how to activate with specific voice commands or “unlock” the branded experiences.

For decades, brands have used audio to create distinctive brand assets, such as audio logos. The same opportunity arises with voice assistants – a piece of voice content can be associated with a short audio signature to indicate the brand that delivered the content. Think of the Intel chimes as one of the most distinctive audio assets.

Equally, we’re likely to see the emergence of “ear-mojis” as a universal audio shortcut to indicate breaking news or special offers from brands. Inevitably, the audio pre-roll is likely to emerge, probably to the annoyance of voice assistant users.

Known voices

The most natural way for brands to convey personality through voice is by using known voices. Do the distinctive tones of Sean Connery or the friendly cheeky James Corden best reflect the persona of a brand? For the time being this is a moot point. Unless the voice responses are canned recordings, it is not yet possible to apply the voice of a specific brand ambassador to your voice content. Vogue, for example, will play recordings of journalists when specifically triggered, such as “Hey Google, ask Vogue about the interview with Jennifer Lawrence”.

Branded applications could certainly use ambassador content for key material. However, AI engines such as Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant work because they respond to what the user is asking in a relevant way. It will be a while before we will be able to have branded voices seamlessly provide content in response to a user question. For FMCG brands, it is time to start learning about the impact of voice content and broadening digital action plans from mobile to voice, and from screens to speakers.

Josie Brown, Director of Digital, APAC, J. Walter Thompson. This story was first published on the April edition of the Inside FMCG print magazine. Subscribe now


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