To boldly go where no brand has gone before
A view from Sue Unerman

To boldly go where no brand has gone before

Most brands connect with their audiences visually but the rise of voice tech will shift the balance of power. To survive in this brave new world, brands will need to find new ways to cut through.

Brands are facing an existential threat like no other. The question is, exactly how it will play out and how soon. As Twitter’s Bruce Daisley said on MediaCom’s Connected podcast recently, it’s impossible to predict the next 20 years, just as 20 years ago we had no idea what life and work would be like today. Yet we can be clear about one thing. The changes to come will make navigating the challenges of today look easy.

You can point the finger at Star Trek for some of this disruption. It’s Captain Kirk who inspired one of the great changes that will challenge current orthodoxies about brands. William Tunstall-Pedoe is the engineer and tech start-up founder who taught Amazon’s Alexa how to talk.

Bridging the gap between science fiction and reality

He acknowledges that his inspiration was the talking computer on the USS Enterprise. Tunstall-Pedoe’s definition of his job as an engineer almost closes the gap between science fiction and reality. Of course, Captain Kirk’s relationship with the computer running the Enterprise was largely benign. (There was the episode with the evil computer Nomad but Kirk talked it down, luckily for the galaxy).

Tunstall-Pedoe is optimistic about the future of voice. In the future, everything you do via tech, you will do simply by asking. Already millions of households worldwide have voice-tech products. Many people have already made them part of the family. What this means is more change. Tunstall-Pedoe notes that all change means risk, but he urges us to keep risk in perspective and believes that voice tech will change people’s lives for the better.

We must all hope that the risks will be managed, that malware will stay under control and that change will be for the good. At the same time, we must plan for the worst.

In the world of media and marketing, one of the worst outcomes may be the disappearance of some brands.

The eras of advertising

We have been through several eras of advertising. In the 1950s, we were in the age of interruption, when consumers were happy to pay attention to ads because they sought the reassurance of brand names and trusted what businesses said to them. From the 1960s to the 1980s, we were in the age of entertainment. People would still pay attention to ads but only if they were entertaining.

In the last decade of the 20th century, we were in the age of engagement. The rise in media channels meant that reaching people at the right time in the right place with the right message was the key to successful comms. The early 21st century was the dawn of the age of dialogue, when millions of dialogues between consumers shaped their opinions of brands. What a brand says about itself is just one factor in brand salience, together with every other aspect of the customer journey from search, social, influencers, reviews, sourcing, authenticity, employee brand, service and experience to repeat purchase and loyalty.

Visual versus aural 

Most purchase journeys are still predominantly visual. Brands are designed with those visual cues in mind. If voice dominates, things change. Maybe only the strongest brands will survive. There will be categories where consumers defer to the voice-tech assistant. The question to ask is: what is it about the brand that will ensure it continues to cut through? To be one of the brands that sticks in the consumer’s brain so they don’t just buy the category, they buy the brand. 

Voice will shift the balance of power and techniques to thrive will be essential. As Mr Spock pointed out: "Computers make excellent and efficient servants but I have no wish to serve under them."

Brand strategy now must plan for the worst to ensure that the brand survives.