In our latest Labs roundtable discussion, BBH Editorial Director Richard Cable invites a stellar cast of guests to discuss this year’s most hyped technology: Voice – and asks if the rise of the ‘virtual assistants’ is an exciting new dawn for brands or a terminal threat.

We’re taking a look at what Voice means for brands and the marketers who serve them with expert insights from Henry Cooke, Head of Voice for BBC R&D; Marcel Kornblum, Head of Creative Tech at BBH London; Sarah Watson, BBH Global Chief Strategy Officer; and futurist Brian David Johnson, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. 

Here’s their advice on how to look at Voice from an agency and brand perspective:

1. Really think about how your brand talks

Henry’s role at the BBC involves looking at what talking to machines actually means. This is especially important because in terms of social communication, voice communicates much more on a gut level, while the visual involves interpretation. Henry explains: “It’s a direct line to someone’s emotional world because we are empathetic creatures. When the only line of communication you have with a user is speech, then the way that you modulate that speech is as important as typography is to visual design”.

Overall, Henry doesn’t seem to think that the hype around Voice is justified. “Voice devices are sold on a promise that’s not true – the smart assistant that will be able to magically sort everything out for you is simply not true.” As we move forward, though, he thinks we’ll get closer to “free conversation” with machines. 

2. Consider the implications of Voice shopping 

Marcel has words of warning around Voice: “For brands, death has a name – and its name is Alexa”. He explains where shopping by Voice can make things problematic for brands for three main reasons: “First, lists don’t work very well. There’s a lot more competition to be first than in e-commerce in general. Secondly, won’t have visual stimulus. Thirdly, you’re working through an intermediary, Amazon, which has its own brands and agenda.”

3. Know how agencies can help brands make the most of Voice

In our current era of AI marketing we can access a complex data picture of people’s lives. Sarah therefore thinks agencies should help brands to respond to the question: “What conversations do I want to be having with people that remains relevant to their daily lives? How can I use new technology to further that?”

4. For prototyping, think big – and look at science fiction for inspiration

To think about where Voice can go, Brian uses a methodology rooted in science fiction which he describes as an effects-based model: “You look at the effect you want to have and you reverse-engineer that.” 

Ultimately, this also involves narrative and storytelling: “A person in a place with a problem is the foundational architecture of a story. If you can tell yourself a different story as a brand about the future then people will take different actions and you can change that story. People make different purchase decisions because the story they were telling themselves was different.” 

Do let us know what you think, and we’d love to hear from you if you have ideas or suggestions for future discussions. You can find us on Twitter @bbhlabs or leave a response in the comments below and we’ll get back to you.