In much of the marquee advertising of the last 10 years or so, it is music or lyrics that carry the narrative where the lack of words might otherwise drag.
Perhaps the most old-fashioned thing to have happened in advertising in recent years is the return of the spoken word. Up until very recently, many of the most celebrated ads were almost, or completely, word-free.
Words, at best, were used as a verbal pay off or an unspoken end-line, eg “Isn’t it nice when things just work?” in Honda “Cogs”, or “We’re the Superhumans” for Channel 4 and the Paralympics, or “For gifts that brighten their world” in John Lewis’ “Moz the Monster”. In much of the marquee advertising of the last 10 years or so, it is music or lyrics that carry the narrative where the lack of words might otherwise drag. The results have been and will continue to be stunning. I love the Sammy Davis Junior re-mix in the Channel 4 Paralympics ad.
But the word is returning. It’s there, throughout, in the latest Nike Lndr spot – and Nike is not normally the chattiest of brands. It’s there in our Nationwide campaign and it’s there in the closely observed dialogue of Dollar Shave Club. Without wishing to get too meta, it is also there in the superb Alexa spot for the Superbowl.
Does Alexa, and voice activation generally, take some of the credit for the return of the spoken word? It certainly hasn’t hindered the verbal renaissance, and must to some extent have accelerated it. But there are two other factors that I would put ahead of VA in terms of their influence to date (then I will come back to Alexa and co).
The first is the renewed importance of authenticity. I have written before in this column about the vital importance of word of mouth in building trust. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, we now trust the man or woman in the street more than any other source of authority, including priests. Given how hard it is to earn brand trust, it’s perhaps unsurprising that brands might look to mirror the idiom and the phrasing of these new “Trust Superpowers”. And this, of course, means communicating a bit more like them. With words.
The second reason for the rise of the spoken word is the importance of having something to say. Communication is becoming more substantial, more rooted and more considered. We may be at the end of an era, we may be witnessing the end of post-modernism and therefore much of the flippancy, frippery and frivolity that went with it.
Titter ye not. There is a new earnestness afoot, a new gravity. And this more mature, pensive outlook is inherently more word-friendly. Even so, I don’t think the rise of brand talk should be taken as an excuse for brand garrulity. Wall to wall voiceover, especially when accompanied by vignettes, remains a sure sign of an idea-free ad.
There is also a massive difference between a brand finding its voice and a brand banging on. Look at a lot of the bestword play and copywriting, and you will see that it is generally based on dialogue, straight to camera monologue, or performance (see the three examples cited earlier).
But each of these examples pre-supposes a one-way exchange; brand to customer, not brand with customer. The new rules of brand narrative, as alluded to above, change all this and are being written not by humans but by algorithmic robots lurking inside voice command devices.
The rise of smart speakers, digital assistants and chatbots mean that the “voice output” of brands will grow exponentially. Mediapos predicts that 30% of all searches will happen without screens by 2020, and Comscore reckons that 50% of UK adults will be using voice to interact with their devices (up from 15% last year).
The balance of power in voice recognition is currently concentrated in a few hands, namely Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, Siri, Xiaoyu (Baidu), Tmall Genie (Alibaba) and Bixby (Samsung). But plenty of other brands are flexing the power of cognitive intelligence in their own ecosystems, including Hana from Honda and Aura from Telefonica.
A new narrative discipline is upon us. And though it seems quite primitive now, it won’t be for long given the speed at which AI is progressing. If your brand has not yet found its voice in this new world, it may need some vocal training quite soon.