Creating A Distinct Voice For Your Brand.

In a post-screen world, voice is the new visual. How will you respond?

Richard Swain
May 5, 2017

We live a in world where many of our interactions with brands come through some form of message service, be it email, live chat, text, or social. As conversational interfaces evolve in line with advances in machine learning, natural language processing, and cloud computing, we’re on the cusp of a whole new world of brand interactions. While technology teams are prepping their organizations to take advantage, CMOs need to be asking how the proliferation of voice-based platforms will affect their brands.

Now is the time to speak up. 

I recently found myself returning to Uber after a 2-month hiatus with Lyft, purely because Uber had written a skill through Alexa, meaning I could call for my ride without ever touching my phone. (The interaction was through Alexa—and therefore Amazon— but the ensuing transaction was with Uber.) Voice-based platforms and services make our lives significantly easier; they enable us to better multi-task and, since an auditory stimulus reaches the brain faster than a visual stimulus; our auditory reaction time is notably faster

Whether we’re searching for information, dealing with customer service, or making a purchase, voice is rapidly becoming a primary interaction point between users and brands; companies that are proactive about creating conversational interfaces therefore benefit from a distinct advantage. 

In a post-screen world where voice-based interactions are becoming commonplace, it is essential that brand teams think about their approach to voice, in the same way they do for visual design today. In a similar way to how we create visual identity systems for brands, it’s now necessary to create verbal identity systems that consider all the words used to represent that brand—not just those specific to a single campaign or product. 

Purpose + character = voice. 

Before investing in a new conversational interface, you have to first be clear on its purpose and audience. Whether you’re building it yourself from scratch or adapting one of the many white-label services on the market, you’ll still need to determine how it will speak to users as well as the appropriate level of association with your brand. 

At Huge, we recently launched Dakota, a digital assistant whose purpose is to help our employees be more effective by streamlining day-to-day tasks, such as booking meeting rooms or finding out whether a colleague is in the building. While there is a clear overlap of this goal and Huge’s mission of helping clients navigate the future, there are some notable differences. The Huge brand is characterized by a frank, no-BS approach, which can be polarizing at times. Dakota comes from this world, but she’s got the added dimension of striving to enhance the lives of Huge employees. This means that despite sharing a large part of the same DNA as the Huge brand, she has her own character.

Huge and Dakota
Plotting Huge & Dakota’s brand personalities to determine similarities & differences.

When defining any voice, it’s always best to start with an overarching character before jumping into specific traits. This way everyone can align on a vision for the voice before any copy is written. The goal here is to think outside of your category and, more abstractly, about the value you create for your users. If you can bring something different or unexpected to a situation, then you’re more likely to have people want to engage with your brand. If you find that your team is spending all its time debating over the most technically accurate description for an action, that’s probably a clue that you don’t have a clear and distinctive personality. 

For instance, if you’re a bank brand that only ever thinks of itself as a bank, then your voice will only ever be that of a bank. On the other hand, if you’re a bank that thinks of itself as a hotel concierge and you embrace that as a philosophy for how you speak to your customers, then you might deliver an ATM statement with the sign off ‘We hope you enjoyed your stay,’ which is much more distinctive than a simple “Thank you.” 

Talent that talks. 

As a way of creating a consistent, engaging, and differentiated brand voice, some organizations, including Huge, are adding theater writers, actors, and even comedians to their staffs. This new breed of creatives is responsible not only for determining the tone of that voice but, in some cases, the voice itself. For Cortana, the virtual assistant for the latest Windows phone, Microsoft decided to re-hire actress Jen Taylor, the voice of its 26th century AI character from its “Halo” game series. 

You might not be building the next Cortana, Google Assistant, or Dakota, but you should be thinking about how your brand comes to life absent of visuals. The role of the technology expert has changed tremendously. No longer are they charged with just thinking about the aesthetics of an experience or the visual flow of an interaction; they must also start thinking creatively about the way specific words or groupings of words can make people react and respond. 

When creating the brand and product for a new digital payments system, Zelle, we made sure that all the product messaging was reflective of the conversational nature of the brand. As a result, Zelle talks about money, not funds. Payments, not transactions. Zelle will say “nice to meet you,” but won’t hold back in nudging you when you’re late to send or accept a payment. Despite wanting to convey trust, it was important that the brand be fresh and full of tenacity, just as you’d want the person collecting everyone’s money to pay the dinner check to be. 

To create experiences like this, you have to ensure that your brand teams are closely in sync with those responsible for building your technology, either through formal or informal structures. The more brand experiences come to life through digital interactions, the more critical it is that these two groups are closely aligned. If you’re able to effectively develop products and communications in tandem, you’ll be able to create much more authentic and engaging experiences for your users. 

In a post-screen world of infinite distractions, where brands are all vying for the same attention, voice may be the very thing that sets you apart.

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