Forget Burger King’s Google Home Gag. Here’s the Real Way to Win Voice

The emerging tech deserves more than a gimmick

Maybe it’s spring fever? Mercury in retrograde?

Whatever the case, Punxsutawney Phil couldn’t have forecasted the self-serving brand decisions we encountered this April. But in a technological sense, the latest misstep was distinctive. A Burger King ad targeting Google Homes across the country—triggering devices to spew burger facts from Wikipedia—marked the first time a brand used a commercial to purposefully provoke responses beyond human emotions.

If the goal was to get media talking, then maybe it was successful. If you measure success in trophies, it may even win some awards.

However, the Whopper stunt serves as an important reminder about the status of voice experiences. By merely existing, it demonstrated that voice as a platform is coming of age, and with that, there is an urgency for brands to prioritize and understand the nascent technology—to find their own “voices,” and to get it right.

Genuine experiences over gimmicks

While plainly a stunt, the Burger King ad wasn’t necessarily a dirty trick. What’s clear, however, is that it was short-sighted.

The problem with the approach was twofold. First, the ad was meant to benefit the brand, with no payoff for the consumer. Second, it used voice as the punch line to the joke.

Greg Hedges

Instead of embracing the excitement and adoption of voice as a vehicle to connect with consumers on a new and emerging channel, it used voice as a gag. Limiting the power of what voice could actually do for a brand—perhaps a way to order ahead from your local Burger King, or even bringing back the Subservient Chicken enhanced for voice—it instead chose to leverage digital assistants as a gimmick, controlled and bent to serve the needs of the brand.

It also created an atmosphere where users are not in control of their own devices, an environment where brands can inject themselves into lives uninvited—something akin to an app showing up on your phone that you didn’t download.

As voice-driven platforms mature and become more familiar, a fast-food brand commercial that triggers your smart home devices might feel less invasive in a few years. But at this early stage, intrusions like this “pull back the curtain,” creating points of friction for the consumer. We’ve just invited digital assistants into our homes and lives—unsolicited activity won’t go over well.

Now is the time to get it right

Even if this incident just scratched the surface, conversational experiences are a budding marketing platform. That a marketer the size of Burger King is considering voice for a major brand initiative is a demonstration of how far the channel has come. The excitement around digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home shows us that voice has finally found, well, its voice.

But why now? It’s because reality has finally caught up with intention.

We’ve been trying to have conversations with computers since they first powered up. With voice, the trouble has always been accuracy in natural language processing and how machines understand what we’re trying to say. Today’s advances in speech recognition have closed the gap, making it so our conversations with smart machines have finally become real, simple and more human.

In turn, users are flocking to voice. By 2021, an estimated 1.83 billion people worldwide will be using digital voice assistants, and in the next year, it’s projected that 30 percent of our interactions with technology will be through conversations with smart machines.

A key takeaway from the Whopper event is evidence of this proliferation. Burger King’s ad didn’t blow over like your average stunt, because voice is a mainstay.

Find a voice that works

As pointed out earlier, one of the ad’s biggest missteps was that it didn’t help the consume. The intention seems to have been to create a “moment” for the brand, with the thinking that it would be “cool” to trigger Google Homes to come to life.

But those metrics are all wrong. Instead of getting consumers talking, they created buzz with media. Instead of engaging their consumers, they engaged a group of people to troll their Wikipedia page for the Whopper. At its core, the spot lacked something of value for the consumer.

While a future with advertising injected into voice-driven experiences might be unavoidable, the expectation today is that consumers have control of when their devices talk to them, and what they have a conversation about. Instead of imposing a useless voice without consent (which is bound to result in negative attention), brands should be building, learning, evaluating and finding the voice that works for them.

Brands should be thinking about more meaningful voice experiences on platforms like Alexa and Google Home, ones that actually have a conversation with their consumers. By offering some kind of value, these types of experiences will engage new audiences, become strategic marketing tools, and turn into additional owned channels in a brand’s digital ecosystems.

To approach voice the right way, brands must look to their consumers’ needs and larger cultural truths. We’ve been espousing two-way communication with our consumers for years. Now is the chance to actually have that conversation.

What role do Alexa, Google Home, Cortana, Siri or others play in overall conversational experiences and digital strategies? Those ready with answers will have positioned themselves for the Age of Ask, which is revolutionizing how consumers find and interact with brands.