As voice-based search grows, what should brands sound like?

Picture the actual voice of a brand. Pick your favorite denim company. Do you imagine a woman or a man?

Comscore estimates that by 2020, 50 percent of all searches will be voice-based. That’s hard to imagine but we’re already seeing 20 percent-plus of all Google searches originating through voice, which is also hard to imagine.

The world we’re moving towards will certainly be operated through voice. Voice will be the new interface. It will be the new keyboard and the new screen.

I have an Echo in my kitchen and a Dot in the bathroom. We have several Echos in the office and in various conference rooms and I use Siri in my car. This is the new normal and it’s really amazing to imagine how we’ll control our worlds when the key interface is not text or visual-based.

Using all these voice assistants has me wondering what should a brand’s voice sound like? But I think it’s a much more difficult question than one would assume.

I’ve been in many creative presentations where a brand’s style guide was discussed and interrogated. I’ve witnessed heated discussions about logo colors and shapes, fonts, and lock ups. I’ve been with clients who have agonized about how one color combination could make a consumer feel a certain way while a particular typeface communicates modernity and another feels old fashioned. I’m not making light of these discussions or these decisions. They matter because color and words and shapes and fonts really communicate meaning and emotion.

Design has always mattered a lot. But now we have to ask ourselves: "What do we sound like?"

Imagine for a second when you’re picturing the voice of the brand. Pick your favorite denim brand. Do you imagine a woman or a man? An older person or teenager? Do they sound educated? There is already so much prejudice, bias, and classism, projected into how someone sounds so how can a brand navigate these unconscious (or conscious) biases?

For example, if you pick a woman does that automatically mean that you have a gender bias? Should anything other than ‘you like one sound over another’ be read into the tone of a voice? Whether you want it to or not, it will, so we have to think about it, even more so than we thought the color of a bottle of laundry detergent (Tide is orange).

Historically, we’ve thought about a brand identity as being a singular construct. We’ve always known that a brand was a big thought (an implied promise), but it usually had only one color (Coke is red) or one typeface.

We’ve deployed armies of brand police to ensure global consistency. But voice is different. A voice is immediately very personal and implies class, education, race and income. A voice is unique and therefore can also be exclusionary. If the brand doesn’t have a southern accent, would people in the south consider it or trust the brand?

In the absence of a voice we project our own identify into the object/brand. But as soon as we assign a voice, we begin to exclude people who don’t sound like us. How should a brand navigate this minefield?

I suggest that brands don’t have one voice. They have many, just like their consumers. Some things should be consistent. Like values and tone. But brands need to speak in lots of voices. Brands wave banners, their communities comprised of lots of voices. Every Mercedes will have its own voice but all voices will talk about luxury and automotive engineering. Every pair of Levi’s will speak like a denim authority but have lots of accents from all over the world.

But can a brand then be identified by its voice if there are many? Maybe not, which is where a mnemonic may come in…

Clearly this new world of voice will lead to really interesting questions, the first probably being identity. It will matter a lot less what you sound like and matter much more what you say.  

Barry Lowenthal is the CEO of The Media Kitchen.

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