What does United Airlines sound like? Can America Online hold up its end of a conversation? At a time when relationship building has become a consumer-marketing imperative, brands must be more than a bundle of product attributes. They have to be, well, practically human.
Pick up the phone and dial E*Trade's customer-service line, and you practically forget that you're talking to a computer. The voice is so lifelike — it's almost like talking to a friend. And that's the whole idea. Because this helpful avatar — a "man" in his thirties who seems trustworthy and knowledgeable — is also delivering E*Trade's branding message: This is a powerful trading service run by reliable professionals who know all about the perils of making a stock trade.
It's all in the voice at the other end of the line, one that E*Trade's marketing team spent hundreds of hours on, creating just the right nuances and inflections. After all, regular conversations with the voice of E*Trade are the closest that many customers will ever get to the company — not quite touching the brand, perhaps, but the next best thing.
The basic technology at work is nothing new. Rudimentary systems that allow us to check on, say, a flight reservation, have become commonplace. But advanced speech-recognition technology is making it possible for companies to invite customers deeper into their businesses — deeper into the essence of the brand.
Now when United Airlines loses your luggage, you can track it down by having a heart-to-heart with a computer. Naturally, the airline is eager to make that process as efficient as possible. But more than that, UAL is hoping that the soothing female voice at the other end of the line — apologetic, considerate, willing to stop at nothing to help you locate your bags — will help salvage its brand's tarnished service reputation. The company has already struck a chord with its flight-information system, which is manned by a male voice that is so smooth and engaging that some callers have asked if they might take the guy out to dinner.
They're only half serious, of course. But the emotional response evoked by a well-crafted voice brand is undeniable.
"With most branding vehicles — print, TV, radio — you're being talked at," says Steve Chambers, VP of worldwide marketing for SpeechWorks International Inc., a Boston-based company that builds speech-recognition systems. "In this medium, it's as if you're having a conversation with the brand."
Needless to say, that interactive experience raises the stakes for getting it right. If the voice brand is out of sync with a caller's emotions, for instance, or if it fails to live up to a customer's expectations, the experience can be a real turnoff. MapQuest.com, the popular provider of Web-based maps and services, thought it would be clever to launch its speech-based phone service by using regional accents and poking a little fun at callers for their geographic cluelessness. In a trial run, people who called looking for directions in the Northeast were greeted by a jocular New Yorker who asked them, "What, you lost again?" But the callers wanted directions — urgently — and were in no mood for sarcasm. MapQuest canned the small talk and opted instead for a brisk, reassuring male voice.
That's part of the appeal of a voice brand: It can be molded by its creators to convey a very subtle subliminal message. First Union National Bank wants to go beyond delivering simple account-balance and transfer information by phone and is creating a service that customers will turn to for financial advice. To pull off that strategy, First Union marketing executives plan to deepen the personality of the bank's voice brand. They'll stick with the same voice they're using now — a man in his mid-thirties who sounds expert and friendly. But just as First Union is adding more-sophisticated offerings to its service, which will roll out by the end of the year, the voice brand is going to become more nuanced as well. Says Bob Ryan, head of First Union Direct channel marketing: "This is the voice of First Union. It needs to grow along with our business."
For some companies, making the creative leap to a voice brand comes with a different set of challenges. America Online already has one of the most recognized audio tags in the world: the voice of Elwood Edwards, whose chipper greeting — "You've got mail!" — is heard by millions each day. Still, when AOL launched its new phone service, AOLbyPhone, in October 2000, the company did not want to risk diluting the Elwood voice brand by giving it a wide range of emotions and tasks, such as reading news headlines or stock prices to AOLbyPhone subscribers. That opened the door for a yin to Elwood's yang — a female voice that now serves as the concierge for the information service and that the company hopes reflects the friendliness and ease that AOL subscribers have come to expect.
Secure in the power of its corporate identity, AOLbyPhone has also created unique personalities for a number of the services it offers. A male in his late twenties reports weather and stock information, whereas an older male delivers news and sports. The different characters are part of a conscious effort to create voice brands that play off of AOL's many online channels. "AOL has already successfully created personalities around its offerings," says Alex Quilici, AOLbyPhone's chief product officer. "If we can give them the right voices, we can bring them alive for our customers."
Contact Steve Chambers by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.