Branding the Conversation: How to keep your brand relevant in a voice-first world

We are rapidly entering the age of conversational commerce. With recent advances in AI , most importantly natural language processing (NLP), voice will be the next big paradigm in how we interact with digital devices. With the big tech companies all racing to establish dominance of their respective voice platform, it’s only a matter of time until spoken dialogue will become the new standard for digital interfaces. Whether Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Now or Viv will win that race, ‘voice’ will also change our path to purchase. This is a great leap forward for user experience and a big headache for brand managers.

Conversational interfaces are the logical progression in freeing our interaction with digital devices from ever more constraints: Mobile freed us from having to be at our desks when interacting with a computer. Voice liberates us from having to hold and type on any device at all. With voice, we can access digital information and services in more contexts, for example when driving, exercising or cooking. And adoption rates are steep with especially younger demographics embracing the possibility to interact with technology through speech.

In contrast, brand management today is still mostly concerned with visual differentiation. Styleguides, brand books, logo rejuvenation projects and image campaigns are at the heart of current brand management practices across organisations — and thy indicate a preoccupation with the visual appearance of brands. In a digital world where customers will increasingly interact with brands via conversational interfaces this fixation can become a problem. It’s obvious that the classic brand management playbook needs to evolve.

There are some early warning signs of what could happen if brand don’t adapt to this new environment: Already today, consumers display alarmingly lower levels of loyalty towards many brands. How will searching or shopping for products change if done solely via voice without any visual cues? When a brand is not in sight during discovery and purchase, the impact of traditional approaches to brand differentiation is greatly diminished. This will most likely hit traditional consumer brands in the CPG space hardest. With almost fully commoditized products consumer loyalty — already under pressure — will be ever harder to uphold in a voice-first world.

So, what are brand managers to do? Focusing on two key aspects will allow brands to stay relevant in a voice-first world:

First, they need to brand the conversation by bringing their unique brand personality to life in dialogue. This will require more than just programming a chatbot logic that is not more differentiating then your average phone tree. Brands need to carefully examine how they can transport their particular character and values through a specific conversational style. Within UX design, there are already concepts emerging on how to tackle this challenge. Meaningful differentiation can also be achieved by providing specific voice-based services, for example a Skill on Amazon’s Alexa platform, that delight users and helps to establish differentiation.

Secondly, meaningful product and service innovation emerges again as the most important strategic imperative. If brands innovate in ways truly relevant to consumers, differentiation is achieved through a better overall customer experience. This is much more powerful than having to rely solely on visual imagery and storytelling. Products and services that stand out with a specific and value-adding experience will be sought out by consumers — even without a great deal of visual brand building. Brands that grew their business by rethinking the customer experience and not by running large-scale advertising campaigns are a testament to how successful this can be. This requires brands to relentlessly focus on customer needs as well as the readiness to constantly recalibrate their offering and its delivery.

The emergence of a voice-first world will challenge today’s take on branding as a largely visual discipline. To stay relevant in a world where screens are not the standard interface anymore requires brand managers to up their game and think beyond logos and image campaigns. This development will ultimately lead to a renewed appreciation for the fundamentals of brand management: conveying a unique brand character across all channels and relentlessly focusing on product and service innovation.