How will brands fare when we talk to our tech?

As voice-recognition technology transforms the customer journey, marketers will need to adapt.

By Garage Staff — August 9, 2018

It took a toddler to connect the dots for Patrick Givens.

Recently, the vice president at full-service marketing agency VaynerMedia was visiting family when his niece, Olivia, nonchalantly asked the household’s smart speaker to play her favorite tune from a TV show. The device instantly fulfilled her desire, no mommy or daddy required.

At VaynerMedia, Givens leads the effort to harness intelligent virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant for marketing. His team is producing voice-based marketing projects for brands, including JPMorgan Chase and GE, so it wasn’t the technology that surprised him — it was how easily his niece operated it.

“It’s striking to watch a 3- or 4-year-old, who can barely read or write, interact naturally with Alexa,” he says. “The ability to talk to our computers is something we’ve been imagining in science fiction for decades, and now suddenly, in the last few years, it’s starting to arrive.”

Greater spoken-word accuracy = liftoff

Over millions of years, humans have evolved to convey and receive information using our voices and hearing. That history, plus the possibilities of modern technology, have made the dream of fluent conversation between man and machine as potent as the wish for a flying car.

And now that listening-and-talking devices are on store shelves, consumers are rushing to give them a try. 

Researchers expect the global market for intelligent virtual assistants to grow by over 35 percent annually, topping $3.6 billion by 2020. The industry’s Consumer Technology Association predicts that 56 million consumer smart speakers will be sold in 2019.

As with every new communication tool that finds widespread adoption, marketers are quick to figure out commercial applications. In voice technologies, they see the opportunity to offer new types of experiences for customers that can help steer them to new brands or build deeper connections with existing brands.

“The ability to talk to our computers is something we’ve been imagining in science fiction for decades, and now it’s starting to arrive.”

Patrick Givens, vice president at VaynerMedia

These AI-powered voice interfaces are expected to become ubiquitous in homes, automobiles and stores. And they’re set to broaden their services beyond retrieving weather forecasts and ordering toilet paper into more complex roles, such as helping you with your banking and investing and talking you through troubleshooting your malfunctioning gadgets.

In her always-anticipated annual Internet Trends report, venture capitalist Mary Meeker recently noted that the voice-enabled-technology market is expanding as innovations make the devices ever more powerful. In recent years, for example, programmers have dramatically improved how well computers recognize spoken words. 

More fluid interactions with voice interfaces mean more sales of the technology. Already, an estimated 30 million Amazon Echos are now installed in homes, so there’s a bigger market for developers to exploit when building new apps. “With voice, we’ve hit technology liftoff with word accuracy, and we’ve certainly hit product liftoff,” Meeker told the 2018 Code Conference at the end of May.

Creating voice-based ambassadors for brands

Voice-based shopping is forcing marketers to change strategies.


Voice-based shopping is forcing marketers to change strategies.

University of Alaska at Anchorage marketing professors Christina McDowell and Ed Forrest say voice interfaces and AI are helping to accelerate the movement of consumer loyalty away from brands toward experiences. The two coauthored a paper, published in the International Journal of E-Entrepreneurship & Innovation, on how AI and virtual personal assistants are redefining marketing.

“We’re witnessing a transformation of the customer journey into a truly digital form,” McDowell says.

Forrest agrees, adding, “Voice is opening a new avenue in the marketing process for that customer journey. No more logging on or going out to shop. Voice is the optimal way to facilitate transactions — it’ll predominate as the interactive avenue into commerce.”

One new insight into the sales funnel that turns voice-interface users into customers came out of a campaign Givens’s team developed with Scotch whisky maker Johnnie Walker. Fans of the brand or new customers who download the Johnnie Walker voice app can enhance their experience by learning about whisky through audio-guided tastings and historical tidbits. Users can explore at their own pace, an attempt to overcome the intimidation that many whisky novices feel. The app also suggests varieties of Johnnie Walker to purchase based on users’ taste preferences.

Givens’s team sees the app as a voice-based ambassador for the whisky brand.

“We talk all the time about needing to drive consumer discovery of a brand,” Givens says. “Every brand needs to define what experience they want to deliver to customers.”

Danger: When voice excludes your brand

Still, this revolution is in its infancy, with marketers, companies and consumers just beginning to evolve to fully embrace it. And, as always with new technologies, there will be winners and losers.

In some arenas where voice is set to play a major role, such as shopping on Amazon using Alexa, one distinct loser might be brand-name products.

Scott Galloway, an influential New York University marketing professor, says voice assistants tied to e-commerce sites that sell their own private labels could effectively kill some brands. In a YouTube presentation, Galloway shows research that between April 2016 and March 2017, non-branded product searches increased significantly in product categories from dishwashing to laundry care.

He then offers a demonstration by asking Alexa to buy batteries. The assistant offers him a list of Amazon’s private-label products, omitting brands such as Energizer and Duracell that many consumers recognize.

“The technology that is probably, in our view, the most revolutionary and going to shake brands to their core is voice,” he says. “The death of brand is here, and it has a voice — specifically, Alexa’s.”

Voice interfaces and AI are helping to accelerate the movement of consumer loyalty away from brands toward experiences.

Forrest agrees that voice-based shopping does pose dangers to lower-priced goods, but he believes luxury products will likely endure.

“Voice will be the death of low-involvement, consumer-goods-parity products where there’s no difference between brands,” he says. “But when it becomes a luxury good or a designer label — the products that consumers define themselves through — brand will still be important.”

Investing in the long game

Even so, tech and luxury product makers aren’t relying on name recognition alone to carry them through the shift to voice assistants. But because the voice-marketing space is so new, many brands need to rethink their approach.

“We’ve reached the point where people interact seamlessly with technology through voice activation, facial recognition and AR/VR,” says HP’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Antonio Lucio. “In this ‘Experience Age,’ brands must create hyper-relevant and personalized experiences across all channels. Thanks to these disruptive technologies, only brands that claim top of mind and top of algorithm status will survive.”

The voice revolution is just starting, but it's powerful.

Getty Images

The voice revolution is just starting, but it's powerful.

Givens says he counsels clients considering voice marketing to view it in terms of product development rather than an ad buy. With traditional marketing and advertising campaigns, planning and budget typically happen up front, with the ad or marketing campaign being the final product.

But right now, a voice campaign must be about making a successful initial presentation that works for the audience. And since the technology is new and the potential audience is still relatively small, a voice campaign doesn’t have to be everything for everyone. Instead, Givens tells clients to analyze how they’re doing as users try a voice campaign and then relentlessly refine the experience to make it better and more useful.

“Adoption hasn’t gotten to the point where we’ve reached a critical mass for marketing purposes,” Givens says. “But I tell our clients that the reason to invest in voice now is that we expect this to be a significant channel for marketing when that critical mass of consumers does migrate in the not-too-distant future.”

Read about how HP became the first printer company to enable voice commands on leading smart speaker platforms.