I was flipping channels when I caught a Science Channel special on Stephen Hawking. The documentary following Stephen Hawking’s life from his days at Cambridge, all the way up to present day. I enjoyed learning more about Hawking’s contributions to science, but in the middle of the documentary, I noticed something new that I’d never thought to acknowledge before: despite the major improvements made in speech synthesization software since the 1970’s, Stephen Hawking’s voice still sounds pretty much identical to what it did 25+ years ago. Why is that?
As someone who enjoys pursuing inane thoughts like this one, I pondered the benefits of having a voice that sounds like R2D2 when one could easily afford a C3P0 upgrade. I soon concluded that despite his scientific achievements, which only a handful of people in the world can truly appreciate, it is instead Stephen Hawking’s voice and story that makes him a prolific figure of pop culture and science. I would argue that a change in his voice software would be similar to a corporation changing it’s name. It turns out Hawking may be as brilliant of a public relations expert as he is theoretical physicist.
Think for a moment what Stephen Hawking’s sounds like. Almost anyone I know can easily recognize his distinct, software-controlled voice. This consistency which spans many decades is exactly what has helped keep him such a prolific and recognizable figure in pop culture. Stephen Hawking has been relentlessly parodied in television and stand-up comedy acts for as long as I can remember and his voice is always a key part of the parody. I can’t prove that Hawking has kept his intentionally kept his voice consistent over the past years for marketing reasons, but when you look at his career, it’s difficult to argue that keeping the same digitized voice has hurt his recognizability or publishing career in any way.
We know that public perception is something that Stephen Hawking values greatly, otherwise he would not go to great lengths to make himself marketable. His most popular published work, A Brief History of Time, is his attempt to connect conversationally with a public body that knows little about theoretical physics. His latest book, The Grand Design, is also written for the non-academic elite. If you’ve heard about this recent novel, you may have also heard the great controversy this book has caused by Hawking’s claim that the universe doesn’t require a God in order to exist. What you may not know however, is that both A Brief History in Time and The Grand Design were coauthored with Leonard Mlodinow who is best known for screenwriting work in Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver. Mlodinow obviously has a talent for introducing science to the masses, which is exactly why Hawking chose him to coauthor his works.
In looking at Stephen Hawking’s career and ability to keep himself relevant to society, it becomes clear to me that Hawking knows his brand. From his many public appearances and television cameos (see here), I believe that Hawking is not only a clever scientist, but also a shrewd public figure that knows how to maintain a positive image in popular culture.
For his work in branding, I would like to be the first to recognize Stephen Hawking as a man who knows brand. Thank you for your work Stephen. Your science is pretty great, too.