Canadians can now talk chicken with Colonel Sanders. KFC Canada has a new partnership with Amazon to bring the “voice” of its iconic founder to Alexa-enabled devices.
The chicken chain worked with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create a facsimile of Sanders’ voice using Amazon Polly, which uses deep learning capabilities to turn text into natural sounding human speech. Polly currently has more than 60 publicly available voices in 29 languages. (Hear the Colonel’s voice, which Amazon Web Services describes as “a Southern US English accent,” below).
KFC is among the first brands in the world to use Amazon Polly’s newly launched Brand Voice feature, which invites brands to enlist the Amazon Polly team to create synthesized voices using Neural Text-To-Speech.
In basic terms, that means it produces speech that is less mechanical and robotic and more human-like. (The more technology inclined can really get into the weeds of NTTS—the phonemes of recorded speech etc.—with Amazon’s explainer here.)
The Colonel’s voice was created across multiple recording sessions with a voice actor, said Jason Cassidy, director of marketing for KFC Canada. The Amazon Polly technology then dynamically converts any text input into the voice.
KFC says its new Alexa Skill offers users an “endless number of chicken jokes, ‘chicken-y’ pick-up lines, random chicken thoughts, and general chicken-themed musings.” It also gives users the ability to place and track an order while interacting with the Colonel’s voice facsimile (unfortunately identified as “Colonel Saunders” on KFC’s Amazon Skills page).
Cassidy said this particular skill was built specifically to ease the re-ordering process by inviting regular customers to link their account to the Alexa Skill. It doesn’t currently support full ordering, he said, although there is the potential for it to be implemented in the future.
Cassidy said that it addresses the increasingly omni-channel nature of the restaurant business, and that KFC could employ “voice-as-a-service” technology in other aspects of the business, such as mobile, kiosks and drive-thru. The company could also conceivably use the Colonel’s voice to train employees, he suggested. (Introducing new technology to enhance the customer experience has been a core component of KFC marketing in recent years.)
The new feature builds on KFC’s “Talk chicken to me” Alexa Skill first introduced in 2017, enabling consumers to access “chicken jokes, pick-up lines, random chicken thoughts [and] references to chicken in pop culture.”
National Australia Bank is also among the early adopters of the new feature according to a report by ZDNet.com, developing what AWS’ head of solution architecture for Australia and New Zealand, Peter Stanski, called a “hand-crafted persona” for the brand that will be rolled out across its call centres (hear it below).
While media brands including the CBC, CTV and TSN currently have an Alexa Skill—and The Globe and Mail adopted Amazon’s Polly Newscaster last summer—there isn’t a widespread consumer brand presence on the platform. One of the few is TD, whose TD Skill offers consumers the ability to conduct voice-activated searches for branch and ATM locations, contact numbers, stock quotes and exchange rates.
Taeko Uchida, associate director of digital investment and activation at Horizon Media Canada, says that having a literal “brand voice” can help companies forge a stronger relationship with consumers, particularly as they grow increasingly comfortable with using voice to place orders via voice-enabled devices.
“As voice commands become more sophisticated, this level of personalization will help create a brand identity that differentiates companies from the competition,” said Uchida in an e-mail to The Message.
In its recent study on voice technology, “Voice in Canada,” media agency Mindshare said that there was a 42% increase in Canadians using voice in 2019 over 2018, although making purchases of any kind ranks low on their list of preferred activities—well behind playing music, asking questions, listening to the radio or finding recipes.
Is the new Alexa Skill a game-changer for the QSR brand? No. But assuming Amazon can help KFC target Alexa users, it might help drive trial. It’s also hard to believe it can turn off any users, either. And more likely to deliver a better—perhaps even charming—user experience compared to most automated voice systems.
Horizon EVP and general manager Kevin Kivi said brands must understand their key assets and character before making the jump to voice. “If you have a strong brand character that can [be transferred to] a more audio focused platform, then you should be prioritizing how you bring that experience to life, given the consumers desire for more customized and personable experiences,” he said.
As far as brand icons go, KFC founder Harland Sanders seems to check many of the necessary boxes. KFC seems to agree: Even though the actual Sanders has been dead for 39 years, his brand cachet is arguably greater than at any point when he was alive.
KFC has now used the Kentucky colonel’s likeness in everything from an online video game to a romance novel, and he has been portrayed by celebrities ranging from former Saturday Night Live stars Darrell Hammond and Norm Macdonald, to Rob Lowe and Reba McEntire.
“[Sanders] is arguably the most distinctive brand asset we have,” said Cassidy. “He was a real person, with values and principles that are alive and well across the KFC business today—from our logo, to the way we hand bread our famous fried chicken in the back of house, to how we interact with our customers and communities—he is at the root of it all.”