How BK's Google Home Stunt Reflects New Audio Branding Era

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Burger King's 'connected' ad triggers Google Home.
Burger King's 'connected' ad triggers Google Home. Credit: Burger King

Burger King's move this week to trigger a Google Home response from a TV ad proved that stunt marketing, when done right, still works, at least in terms of earning free media attention. But the feat also showed how audio, as much as visuals, is emerging as a critical branding consideration as voice-powered personal assistants like Alexa rise in popularity and so-called "hearables" -- like smart headphones -- enter the market. This new audio era is a throwback to the days when radio ads ruled, but with a twist: Instead of simply talking at consumers, new technologies have allowed brands to have a two-way voice dialogue.

"There are definitely a lot of very solid fundamentals and best practices from communicating with people via radio that we can take into this space, but then there are some things that are new," said Tom Kelshaw, director of creative technology at WPP media agency Maxus, who is working on a white paper on the topic. "Radio doesn't know anything about you. It's not addressable. It's not context aware."

Perfecting your brand's sound is also important in traditional media because viewers are more distracted than ever before. "You might be supposedly watching a TV show but actually you are texting your friend and looking up something online," said Colleen Fahey, U.S. managing director of audio branding agency Sixième Son. But "if you avert your eyes, your ears are still hearing and you don't have to be listening to be hearing."

Below, some audio branding tips:

Define your audio DNA
Everyone knows about audio logos, like Intel's familiar four-note signature. But Fahey, co-author of "Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand," advocates that brands go further to create an audio style guide that can be used to create a consistent sound across everything from ads to on-hold music and the sound played at trade show booths. Brands run into trouble when they make these choices in isolation. Huggies once used different sounds all over the world. But Sixième Son recently created a 46-second audio DNA soundtrack for the brand combining playful music, a baby cooing and a mother humming meant to replicate the sound of a mother and child bonding. The sound identity is now being used in ads all over the world. Here is the audio logo played at the end of ads:

When Coke launched its new global campaign last year, it paid close attention to sound, creating a new audio signature with vendor Deviant Ventures that combines audio of a bottle opening with "ahhhh" and the "Taste the Feeling" song verse.

"The sound of a brand sticks with people and becomes part of pop culture," said Coca-Cola Group Director of Global Entertainment Marketing Joe Belliotti. He added that sounds "can endure longer than most other pieces of marketing. This gives brands a great opportunity as consumer attention turns to new ways of engaging with technology." In a Tumblr post on the topic, Belliotti issued the following brand sound quiz. Can you name each brand? (*Answers at bottom of this post.)

Be the default
Picture an online product search. It returns plenty of choices visually. Now imagine that same search only using audio. "If you ask Siri to order you a pizza, it doesn't doesn't reel off every pizza brand that is available. It just goes and does it based on some configuration that you have," Kelshaw said. Voice interaction is "going to privilege the leader or the default, or the pre-selected," he added. So "get ready to start having the discussion with the people who control or aggregate audiences such as Amazon or Google," he said, noting that these discussions are typically held in the sales department, not marketing.

Try augmented audio
Kelshaw predicts we could soon reach "peak screen" in which people can't use screens like smartphone displays more than they already do. So brands must be prepared to reach consumers in other ways, including via augmented audio powered via smartphone sensors or wearables. He pointed to technology like a wireless smart earbud brand called Here One by Doppler Labs that allows listeners to control real-world sound. The brand recently partnered with the Cleveland Cavaliers, using its "layered listening" technology to allow fans to selectively filter out crowd noise, or stream play-by-play commentary and stats over the real-world sounds of the game.

Give your chatbot a voice
Most artificial intelligence-powered chatbots communicate via text, like the "TacoBot" Deutsch created for Taco Bell that allows consumers to place orders via Slack.

Tacobot Credit: Taco Bell

But Deutsch Chief Digital Officer Winston Binch envisions that bots will soon seamlessly toggle between voice and text commands. The need to communicate via voice is "going to catch a lot of brands by surprise," said Binch, whose agency has formed a new AI and bots division called Great Machine. "This is all theory but we do know that with the investments being made by the tech giants in voice and AI that this world is going to be there pretty quickly."

*Brand sound quiz answers:

Note: The NFL sound is actually the theme song for the NFL on Fox.

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