Human or Abstract? Defining Your Conversational Brand Experience

Gender, name, visual identity and personality all factor into what a brand should sound like.

Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with voice technology. Digital assistants, whether chatbots or voice agents, can bring brands to life in new ways, adding personality, differentiation, warmth – and even humor. They can turn static digital experiences into dynamic conversations, deepening the connection between brands and their customers.

The Conversational Brand: Strategy for a Digital-First World report by Altimeter, Prophet’s research arm, outlines the key decisions to consider to bring a conversational experience to life. The report seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What is the role of the conversational experience in the broader brand portfolio?
  • How closely linked should it be to the master brand?
  • What use cases will it deliver on?
  • What benefits will it bring to its users and to the company?

If the goal of the conversational experience is owned by one product or channel, it may look and talk very differently than if its role is to represent the master brand and provide a connective thread across different touchpoints.

Human or Abstract: That Is the Question

First, one must decide how to design the persona –either human-like or abstract. The main factor that should influence this decision is the strategic intent of the conversational experience: is the goal to humanize the brand? To create a deeper relationship with customers? To stand out in the market with a relatable character? If the answer to these questions is yes, then a human-like persona may be preferred. If, on the other hand, the goal of the experience is to automate repetitive tasks, to increase the speed of transactions, or to simplify processes in the background, then an abstract persona may be preferred.

In practice…

When AXA asked Prophet to create a conversational experience, we aligned on some clear strategic objectives: deepen customer engagement while humanizing the AXA brand as it was making the shift from payer to partner. A human-like avatar made the most sense, and so Emma was born. We built Emma to become an empathetic navigator, helping customers easily navigate the journey – from accessing services and making claims to reviewing health information and checking symptoms.

“The experience is futuristic and high-tech to create a futuristic and high-tech identity.”

Choosing a human conversational identity is an approach other companies are finding success with, as well. For example, Microsoft recently announced that it would turn Xiaoice, its highly empathetic chatbot, into her own entity, paving the way for new licenses and ventures.

Microsoft has described this virtual teenager as “sometimes sweet, sometimes sassy and always streetwise.” She’s fond of joking with users, even offering encouraging advice on life and love. With 660 million users worldwide, Xiaoice works on multiple chat services and is trained on data that Microsoft gleaned through the Bing search engine.

In addition to its abstract Google Assistant, Google is developing Meena, a human-like avatar that observers expect to deliver the best conversational AI yet.

But for some purposes, abstract identities offer more possibilities. For example, Bixby, Samsung’s digital assistant, is designed to help customers unlock their Samsung devices’ full potential. Bixby is an always-on feature. But instead of simply following commands, it’s built to have conversations. It encourages exploration and offers insightful curation, all the while making the everyday tasks feel easier.

In other words, it acts as a users’ bright sidekick, bringing together more information than a human could possibly manage. And while the technology is friendly, its features are best expressed through an abstract experience, not a human one. The experience is futuristic and high-tech to create a futuristic and high-tech identity. Even its name is not human, which allows it to appear and perform consistently in markets worldwide.

Developing Your Brand’s Conversational Identity

Once a company has decided what type of AI assistant it will create, there are still many decisions to make in developing its identity. For example, we established guidelines for the many ways Emma communicates with consumers, allowing personality to shine through in every interaction. She is curious, smart and thoughtful, determined to help users take care of their physical, financial and emotional well-being. Even her physical appearance is distinctive: She’s an approachable Pan-Asian woman with a little French flair.

Often, these seem like minor details. But digital assistants are functional, transactional touchpoints that benefit from small, purposeful doses of personality, including:


Users expect a gender even in abstract assistants. If it’s not immediately apparent, they’ll often ask. Both Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, for example, are positioned as vaguely female. And Samsung made this question a core part of the Bixby’s user experience, with devices prompting people to assign Bixby a voice that is either male or female.


Even beyond suggesting gender, names are a key part of developing an identity. Some names sound young. Some sound formal. Choosing a too familiar name might at first make customers think they’re dealing with an actual human. And some names have specific class, geographic or even religious associations.

Visual Representation

Since users see these assistants while they are talking, aesthetic considerations are important. These questions go far beyond simple graphic design and are at the heart of strategic positioning. Should the assistant look like it is closely connected to the master brand? Should the visuals be able to translate into more extensive advertising efforts? Or can it take on new dimensions, possibly paving the way for new offers, markets and customers?


Customers will only respond to digital representations that are likable. Like in real human relationships, personality traits shape communication. Should it be bold? Curious? Serious? Funny? Thoughtful? Clever? A Gen Z customer expects a different type of conversation than a Baby Boomer does. Use cases also matter – customers probably won’t feel like joking if they’re sick or just lost their credit card.

But ultimately, the best choices all support the strategic foundation, turning digital assistants into brand allies. And built carefully, with thoughtful updates as more data is collected, they can spark growth and deepen digital connections.


When designing the conversational experience’s identity, merely finding an interesting avatar or mascot is not enough. It is crucial to consider the strategic imperatives to make the experience consistent with the master brand.

Interested in developing a powerful digital experience and virtual assistant for your brand? Contact us today.