Building a Voice Brand Is a Sound Policy

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Voice branding has become increasingly important because consumers ingest so much more information through their ears than their eyes, according to Rupal Patel, founder and CEO of VocaliD, a company that creates custom synthetic voices.

Though many companies have yet to adopt voice branding, others have developed voices that are as recognizable as their visual logos. These include Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Home, which each have their own unique voices with very distinct styles and personalities.

Other companies employ voices that might not be as universally recognizable but are certainly recognizable by their customers. These include Bank of America, Discover Financial Services, and Disney.

Still others have recognizable voice brands that carry through their advertising campaigns, like KFC’s “Colonel Sanders” (even though more than a dozen different actors have played and voiced the character), Allstate’s “Mayhem like me,” and Progessive’s “Flo,” just to name a few.

David Ciccarelli, founder and CEO of Voices.com, a Canadian outfit that matches clients with voiceover, music, audio production, and translation professionals in more than 160 countries, says his company had primarily worked on voices for video production but more recently has seen increasing interest in voice production for speech applications. “The era of audio and voice is definitely here,” he proclaims.

The company’s own research supports his assertion. “Two of the biggest changes we’ve seen is the shift to digital projects and the continued increase in voice technology,” Voices.com says in its latest annual trends report. “As these channels continue to grow, it will be interesting to witness the innovation that will take place to compete in these increasingly saturated markets.”

The Voices.com report added that the shift to digital content “also allows for targeting and personalization like never before. Marketing and advertising campaigns will have to consider multiple audiences, and creatives will be tasked with knowing each audience like the back of their hand.”

Also underlying the progression of voice branding is the proliferation of technology that can use it effectively, including smart speakers in the home and voice-activated systems in automobiles.

“When you think about a brand and its touchpoints, to its customers it’s not just the marketing materials that are sent through email or other means, it’s also things like streaming audio,” Patel says.

Companies might not necessarily use the same voice in their podcasts and their contact center interactive voice response (IVR) systems, but they should have some cohesiveness, Patel adds. “A company has to have a voice strategy. It should be a voice that is easily associated with the brand.”

Many companies turn to big-name celebrities to be their voices, but that comes with its own warnings. Companies need to be careful when using a single voice that can’t be easily imitated. That was an issue experienced by insurance company Aflac when it tried to sever ties with actor and comedian Gibert Gottfried a decade ago after he tweeted jokes about a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“There are a lot of pros and cons in investing in a third party,” says Ryan Steelberg, president of Veritone, an artificial intelligence technology provider. “If you’re leveraging the voice of [the late] Rush Limbaugh, for example, it may perform well. But the [political] views [Limbaugh held] might be different from the brand values that you want to convey. You have to think about why you are aligning a brand with a particular voice. And you have to think about the short and the long term. Are you going to have the right to use that voice, or are you going to have to renegotiate after a certain amount of time? You may not want to be so reliant on a third party in the future.”

Steelberg explains that when the contract terms expire, the company might not be able to successfully renegotiate with the voice actor. If too much brand equity is invested in that one voice, the company could take a marketing hit.

Steelberg points out that the Home Depot used actor Ed Harris for many years, but they parted ways when they couldn’t come to terms on a contract extension. The Home Depot found a voice actor who could mimic Harris’s voice, but when it didn’t secure Harris’s approval, a large lawsuit ensued.

“There are a lot of issues you need to think about,” Steelberg says.

KFC has been successful with different actors portraying and voicing its iconic Colonel Harland Sanders since the company founder died in 1980. These have included Saturday Night Live alumni Darrell Hammond and Norm Macdonald; comedian Jim Gaffigan; wrestler Dolph Ziggler; actors George Hamilton, Billy Zane, Rob Lowe, Jason Alexander, and Ray Liotta; and even female country singer Reba McEntire.

Similarly, Disney, which has some 800 licensed characters, doesn’t rely on one voice, but instead carries a “whimsical, magical” tone through all of its messaging, Ciccarelli says.

Define a Sonic Identity

For many companies, the idea of voice branding started with their IVRs, but the idea is still in its early stages, according to Ciccarelli. “Companies have spent 100 years developing a visual identity—namely, their colors, typography, logo. Now they’re using new audio channels to communicate with customers. Whether they’re informing an audience or entertaining an audience, new channels are emerging that are audio-only, which has prompted brands to re-evaluate what they sound like—their sonic brand.”

That sonic brand could be built around a human or synthetic voice, a tone (like Apple’s distinct chime when someone powers up one of its Mac computers), or a collection of sounds that when combined “creates a soundscape that should become familiar to the listener,” Ciccarelli says.

These elements should provide a clear sonic identity, which, if used properly, crosses all customer touchpoints, according to Ciccarelli. “Sonic branding can be the unique identifier when presented with countless options across the media landscape, with speech being the most powerful format to deliver information and create emotion.”

Steelberg agrees, pointing out that many companies have brand ambassadors for audio and video ads but set a completely different image in their contact center with a voice and tone that doesn’t share the same qualities.

“We are working with customers to have a continuous voice brand across the life cycle of the customer,” Steelberg says.

However, Steelberg, notes that there are times when the tone and voice should be different. While a fun voice persona might be fine for radio, television and social media ads, it might not fit for a contact center when someone is calling in with a very serious issue.

The art of voice branding is still in its infancy, but with the continuing evolution of artificial intelligence, it’s easier than ever to have a single voice or type of voice (if a brand desires some small variances) to carry across different modalities, according to Patel.

TD Bank, which wants to espouse trust and integrity, uses a calming, gentle voice in video ads, Ciccarelli says. The voice carries through to voice response systems for customers looking for help to reset passwords or conduct internet transactions.

However, many companies have yet to embrace comprehensive voice branding, for the same reason that many don’t unify their marketing and other efforts. For them, voice technologies are often constrained in different silos and an afterthought when it comes to unified marketing, experts agree.

Voice branding should be seen much like visual branding. A company wouldn’t use different colors for color print ads and TV spots, for example, Patel says. “There’s some cohesiveness there, so why not with voice? Companies have one offering for IVR and another for TV; they’re seen as separate. Why not tie them together through voice?”

Even if there is a single voice, a national company might want to tweak it slightly for regional uses with regional accents, dialects, or cultural differences. Having different voices with the same sound “might also help companies address some inclusion and diversity concerns,” Patel says. “There are things that you can do for different market audiences that aren’t being done today.”

For example, advancements in AI, voice, and personalization technology have made it possible for a company like Bank of America to make its voice assistant, Erica, speak differently to an elderly client than it would to a younger client. Erica can also alter the speed of speaking or pitch depending on what the bank knows about the customer.

Developing a Voice Brand

Patel has found that VocaliD customers typically want a branded voice for customer service applications. They can work with their own voice talent or work with VocaliD to create a voice that would best fit the brand and its target market. The human talent can read some basic content from which VocaliD creates a voice AI model that can then be re-created for use during corporate meetings and other live events, expanded FAQs, updated company information, and so on, through its text-to-speech engine using the available voice file and its AI engine.

“For the financial services industry, for example, we work with the company to define the market segments, the age range of their customers, what the demographics are like, etc., to understand their brand attributes,” Patel says. “One with very forward-thinking technology will have a different sound than one that markets itself primarily as homegrown, with a strong community base. The first one would have a tone of voice reflecting the technology. The latter would be more laid back and speak a little slower.”

Different types of content will require some massaging of the AI, Patel adds. “You also have the capability in the system that we build to modify the pitch and the tone and the speed and the pronunciation of the voice as well. After the audio has been generated by the AI system, we do as much as we can to give as much flexibility to the company to get the right delivery, not just the right words.”

Voices.com asks customers: “If you could personify your brand, how would it sound?”

Companies need to have a better definition than “a good quality voice,” Ciccarelli says.

In the Voices.com blog, the company recommends that enterprises conduct a voice audit, which includes these steps:

• Ensuring the firm has a clear brand identity, understanding how the brand should be expressed across different media. Consider how the qualities of the organization should be conveyed explicitly and implicitly in different communications.

• Conducting a market analysis examining the competition and the customers’ current perception of the brand.

• Investigating whether the brand identity is resonating through external communications. Review the different platforms through which the company communicates, such as social media, podcasts and other audio content, or mass media. Does the brand identity shine through? Where is it strongest? Where is it weakest?

• Implementing an internal branding strategy. The company’s voice brand should be the same internally and externally. Using internal branding should also help improve employee engagement.

• Consolidating all communications for maximum brand alignment. The brand identity, including the sonic brand, should resonate with customers and result in positive feedback. If not, the organization should re-evaluate what it knows about its customers to learn why the feedback isn’t positive.

Companies can go through all of these steps with a voice provider, but it will mean little if the customer experience doesn’t fit the brand image the company is trying to communicate, Ciccarelli cautions. For example, if a financial services firm wants to communicate a warm, friendly tone, then anytime a customer talks to a customer service agent the interaction shouldn’t be terse. That could be seen as a brand disconnect.

“You want to capture the underlying characteristics of the brand and make sure that is infused through all of your touchpoints,” Ciccarelli says. “These touchpoints are the micro-moments of truth. It’s where your customers actually hear you.”

So there should be sonic brand guidelines that agents need to follow so the personality shines through, Ciccarelli explains. Chase, for example, has a co-branded credit card with Disney. Disney is offering its brand as well as points for purchases that can be redeemed with the company. Chase handles the financial services side, including card issuance, payments, etc. If a credit card customer calls the contact center, he is greeted warmly; once the issue is handled, the agent often ends the call with “have a magical day.”

Opportunity for Growth

While financial services, hospitality, and other industries use voice branding today, there is still room for tremendous growth, according to Patel. Some companies still have a very narrow definition of voice branding and have yet to expand the strategy across the enterprise.

Healthcare is one such industry. “Healthcare is all about relationship building. The head doctor or dentist or other provider in a practice can help create some personality around the brand. But [to date] the healthcare companies have yet to realize that voice is the last thing that touches their customers or patients. If that voice isn’t nurturing or warm, is that something the practice wants to convey?”

However, a single, nurturing, warm voice isn’t best for all uses, Patel adds. The voice used in an emergency room should sound much different than one used in a dental office, for example.

“It’s really important that these providers come to understand voice branding, yet they just assume [a patient] is coming to me for care. They are, but part of whether they will keep coming depends on how you present yourself.”

And the opportunities going forward are only expected to increase.

“As the world becomes increasingly touchless, voice technology will be adopted at a faster rate than ever before,” Voices.com predicts in its annual trends report. “Businesses required to follow new health and safety policies will explore touchless technological solutions as they serve customers in a socially distanced world. This goes beyond the use of voice assistants to also include integration of text-to-speech technology and AI at various times throughout the day, all powered by a hybrid of human and synthetic voices.”

Ciccarelli adds that after more than 18 months on Zoom meetings, many consumers have “screen fatigue” and are, therefore, more receptive to audio communications.

Steelberg expects to see an increasing number of companies developing brand avatars and synthesized voices and using AI-based speech technology to localize and personalize messaging on a regional basis.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is also acting as a catalyst for the growth of voice branding. Consumers have become increasingly comfortable with two-way voice communications and non-touch interactions, Patel points out. “People don’t want to touch things; people want to hear things instead when it comes to customer service, so the use of voice is becoming far more pervasive than it was even a year ago. My guess is that in a year from now, we’re going to see that accelerate even further. We’re going to have more industry verticals understanding the importance of carving out their own voice space and having a voice identity that’s unique, that conveys what that brand is, just like they thought about their colors, their fonts, etc.” 

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at spenterprises1@comcast.net.

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