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  • Michael Spencer

Soundings: talk to me…talking the walk…beyond words

Talk to me. (yes, me!) – Michael Spencer on why mass marketing no longer exists Talking the walk – guest contributor and acclaimed radio ad director, Tony Hertz, asks whether the way a brand talks influences how customers see it? Beyond the words – robotic voices are killing communication (Andrew Peggie)


Talk to me. (yes, me!)

We are living in what is probably now a post-mass marketing environment. Not because the numbers are going down but because the ground rules which evolved around mass marketing are no longer holding up.

Over a century ago, in 1892, a song by Charles K. Harris, “After the Ball”, sold 1 million copies in sheet music format. The song became the world’s first multi-territory, multi-language marketing success and its total sheet music sales of over 5 million has never been surpassed. It would be fair to say that “After the Ball” represents the start of the 20thcentury’s mass marketing phenomenon, benefiting symbiotically from the emerging media: print, photography, radio, cinema, television and audio/video recording.

But while technology has developed exponentially, the purpose of marketing seems firmly rooted in an 18th century Enlightenment mind-set of passive didactic instruction: ‘you read/listen/look; we’ll tell you what’s best for you’. Even today, the basic premises can often be traced to audience-based religious or theatrical models; to the idea of experts transmitting knowledge and information via a compelling ritual or a piece of glitzy entertainment. Advertising is still mostly little stories, songs or films with the product replacing the moral.

One consequence has been increasingly sophisticated sectorisation in the hope of discovering the marketing holy grail: a consumer/audience profile which guarantees a sale. And as the sectors become more tightly defined, so the process becomes ever more quasi-controlling and potentially manipulative.

In fact, Charles K. Harris had similar ideas a century ago. He was certainly not a great songwriter, but he discovered early on three important elements of mass marketing: the need for a universal emotional touch point, for a non-threatening, non-controversial product and for people to have an individual relationship with it. “After the Ball” is a simple melody, competently constructed out of a collection of melodic and harmonic clichés, which can be arranged and presented in an infinite number of ways – everyone can make it their own.

It is this latter aspect of the song which makes an interesting connection with current consumer behaviour. Thanks to constantly evolving instant response functionality on the web, telephones and TV, people can – and indeed expect to – answer back. We are invited to choose, customise, interact, respond, get involved, feed back, sign up…

Then we become frustrated. The tempting one-to-one dialogue opportunity turns out to be a myth. The people ‘out there’ don’t really care what we think or feel.

We are faced with automated mass communication interfaces never intended for bespoke responses: complex dialling options, patronising ‘on hold’ messages, unintelligible call centre staff with neither the authority nor the intelligence to deal with queries, sales-persons whose robotic reading from a script elicits homicidal tendencies, alienating websites with the aura of a 19th century library or a tacky suburban nightclub, moribund forums, pointless surveys, ‘interactive’ games with minimal pay-off…

The problem is that transmission of factual information is rarely the primary function of any dialogue, whether face-to-face or remote. Even the simplest of transactions, such as learning which floor the elevator has reached, benefit from becoming personalised, as any former lift attendant will tell you. Digitally recorded voices such as railway timetable announcements alienate us, no matter how clearly audible they are, because we quickly learn that the tone of voice will always be exactly the same, whatever the time or circumstances, and whatever our emotional state. The assumption of an ersatz form of dialogue in a situation where the voice (however natural-sounding) will never actually react to a human response, becomes little more than a form of provocation.

Michael Spencer Managing Director

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Talking the walk

First of all, you probably shouldn’t be reading this.

What I mean is that since it’s about how companies and brands talk, it would be more logical if you heard it. But while we work out the podcast version please do keep reading.

The consistent message of the Soundings newsletter is that in a highly visual world, the creative addition of sound can enhance brand messages and positiviely influence consumers.

No argument here – the more considered the web or on-hold or lobby or elevator music the better.  But there’s also another sound whcih hasn’t been mentioned much -the one that’s easiest to get right.  And wrong.

It’s the important sound that can actually lessen the value of your expensivley planned music environment.  I’m talking about Sandra on the switchboard, the call-centre operators, the recorded Your-Call-Is-Important-To-Us, the in-store, elevator, onboard announcements.  Not just the voices themselves, but the words they say and the way they say them.

Example.  I love coffee; I have a top-end espresso  machine, bought in Italy, made there by a world famous coffee machine company.  It’s had a fault and has been back and forth a number of times to tue UK service centre, which is in Yorkshire.  I’ve been less than impressed with their service and had to call them a lot.  Each time, I’ve experieinced the ususal all-lines-are-engaged-we-aplogise-for-the-delay recording, spoken by a woman with a very broad local accent.

Attibutes to accents – regional and class – are certainly not exclusife to the UK, although probably more significant here than in some other coutries.  But in this case, suppose, instead of the Yorkshire accent – which is generally considered blue-collar – the recorded voice had a hint of Italian.  Would that, at least, have given the impression that the service centre was somehow connected to the brand, or more important, to the customer’s own sense of what the brand means?

Of course it’s not professional to base general assumptions on a personal experience, but this isn’t an isolated incident and anyone who gives any thought to what they hear on a daily basis could come up with dozens of similar examples.

These aren’t problems, any more that web music is a problem.  But they are missed opportunities.  In my years as an ad agency creative director I came to believe that tactical communication which doesn’t reinforce brand values is not only a missed opportuinty, it’s also tactiaclly less effective.

Why has this happened?  There isn’t space here to explore the complexiteis some of which are sociological.  Bottom line is that many brands are concentrating so much on the visual aspects of communication that sound – specifically the sound of voices – takes a back seat.

I’ve spent the best part of my 35+years in advertising specialising in radio so you might expect me to thinkcommercial every time I hear a recorded voice.  But notwithstanding my vox-obsessive tendencies, there are, in fact, clear and close parallels between good radio ads and the voice communication that I’ve been describing.

It’s not a stretch to say that a recorded telephone message is a commercial.  And to be effective, radio spots should be inteesting, clear, personal and engaging.

Well that should make it all simple, shouldn’t it?  Well it should, but the reality is that there aren’t very many companies, including major ad agencies, who are good at radio.

But don’t get me started on that.

Tony Hertz Tony is a former Creative Director with McCann-Erikson, heading creative departments in the UK, Tokyo and Brussels.  He now owns Hertz:Radio and Other Clever Advertising Ltd., specialising in radio advertising.  He is the UK’s most highly awarded radio ad director and has conducted his creative radio workshop, Radio for Art Directors© in 27 countries, most recently Finland, Dubai and Chile.

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Beyond the words

If you travel on the London Underground or suburban railways, you will not have failed to notice the plethora of public address announcements that plague the mass transit system. You might also have begun to notice a curious personal response – silent voicing of the recorded announcement, mimicking as exactly as possible the enunciation of the (often computer-generated) speaker. Tourists quite blatantly and loudly echo the ‘mind the gap’ warning heard on many tube lines.

Why? Why mimic a mechanised information speech that tells us almost nothing that is not already self-evident? Probably because of our atavistic need to respond. Communication is a two-way process. It depends on some sort of recognition that the message has been received and that the receiver is reciprocating. It is a powerful illustration of how people need to communicate, even when the responding context is clearly absurd.

Mass marketers and corporate communicators love the human voice. It goes without saying that speech communication humanises the process of information transmission. A good speaker can motivate and inspire large numbers of people simultaneously, more so than handing out a text document with the same message.

Speech engages on an emotional level which is much harder to attain through other media, except perhaps music. But music cannot tell you that the train will be 20 minutes late. Speech is special because it can deliver factual information and expressive content simultaneously.

Difficulties arise when these two aspect of speech – the humanising, emotional element and the factual, information giving element – are treated as discrete functions, with the possibility of the one existing without the other. Any good after dinner speaker will confirm that you ignore the subliminal aspects of speech at your peril. The whole point of hearing a human voice is to engage with it on many different levels. That’s the definition of communication. Even if the responses are ritualised into moments of applause.

The impulse to respond is paramount. And it stems from much more than just the words. The communication ofaffect, for example, which addresses arousal, pleasure and power and the complex inter-relations arising from dialogue. Or the equally complex interactions between language, semantics, emotional inflection, audio perception and culture difference.

Numerous authorities now point to the importance of paralanguage (non-verbal messages) in human speech. Hesitations, ‘ums’, ‘ahs’ ‘ers’ are proving not to be the noisy, unwanted elements of speech, but an integral part of the message. A recent New Scientist round-up of the arts of persuasion points out that fluent, authoritative speech is not necessarily the most effective in getting people to change their point of view, since it can elicit a sense of resistance to perceived manipulation.

Speech-based mass communication channels were designed largely to impart information in one direction only, but possibilities for two-way mass communication are now evolving rapidly and the need to develop richer, person-to-person channels which can accommodate a broader range of expressive detail will likely increase. Social networking sites are clearly edging towards solutions.

One thing is certain, companies wishing to communicate effectively with clients or customers need to raise the barwhen it comes to speech interfaces. The expectation of true, person-to-person interactivity is now higher than ever.

Andrew Peggie

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