As Voice Has Its Moment, Amazon, Google and Apple Are Giving Brands a Way Into the Conversation

Few of their devices’ skills or apps are branded, but that’s changing

One in four searches is conducted by talking, not typing, a figure comScore predicts will reach 50 percent by 2020.
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For decades, listening to ‘the voice of the customer’ has been the Holy Grail for marketers. Now, thanks to technology, they can do it millions of times each day.

According to Google and Bing, one in four searches is conducted by talking, not typing, a figure comScore predicts will reach 50 percent by 2020. That same year Echo alone will account for $7 billion in voice transactions—or vcommerce—per investment firm Mizuho Bank.

Voice is having its moment. People are talking, devices are listening and brands are attempting to insert themselves into the conversation, using Amazon Alexa voice skills and Google Home apps.

With a few choice phrases, consumers can order an Uber or Domino’s pizza on either device. Echo fans can also ask Patrón to help them make a margarita, consult Tide on how to remove stubborn stains, or get Campbell’s or Nestlé to serve up dinner recipes, among other skills.

Currently, only a small percentage of Alexa’s 25,000 voice skills are branded (Amazon won’t reveal how many). You’ll find even fewer in Google’s few hundred voice apps.

But that’s changing. Over the next few years, brand voices are about to get a lot louder.

Shots in the dark

Admittedly, many of those 25,000-odd voice apps are gimmicky—good for getting attention but not much else, noted Layne Harris, head of innovation technology for digital marketing agency 360i. But forward-thinking brands are embracing the technology now, he added, making voice skills a key element of their marketing strategy. Just last week, 360i launched a new practice solely focused on Amazon to help brands navigate the world of voice marketing.

When Patrón launched its voice skill in July 2016, it was part of a broader marketing initiative called the Cocktail Lab, involving 50 bartenders around the globe crafting new tequila-infused drinks, said Adrian Parker, vp of marketing for Patrón Spirits. (The distiller also just debuted an augmented reality app called the Patrón Experience for Apple’s iOS 11.)

Some 350,000 consumers have participated in the Cocktail Lab, said Parker, with more than 10 percent coming via the Alexa Skill. Since launching the lab, traffic to Patrón’s website has increased by 43 percent, thanks in part to Alexa users who spend more time on site and download more recipes.

“Voice was the first platform that allowed us to take what would traditionally be a face-to-face experience in a bar and make that virtually accessible,” Parker said. “Alexa is not only giving us the capability to engage with customers on their terms, it’s also preparing us for the voice-led future.”

Utility is key, said Greg Hedges, vp of emerging experiences at Rain, a digital consultancy that helped create Alexa apps for Campbell’s and Tide. The voice skill can’t merely be memorable; it must also be useful.

“The skills that see the most engagement are not just advertising,” he explained. “They take a step further towards connecting with consumers. They give people a reason to come back, because consumers know they can get the answers they’re looking for.”

For brands like Patrón and Campbell’s, getting consumers to drink more tequila and consume more chicken soup isn’t the only goal, said Charles Golvin, a research director for Gartner.

“They’re also trying to establish themselves as the voice of authority or curator across the broader product category that they serve,” he said. “It’s not just about selling Patrón tequila, it’s about being your mixologist expert. It’s not about selling Campbell’s soup, it’s about being your epicurean guide.”

A focus group of one

With the emergence of Alexa touchscreen devices like Echo Show and the new Echo Spot, brands also need to prepare for a voice+ world where results can be seen as well as heard, said Jonathan Patrizio, head of technical advisory at Mobiquity, a digital agency that developed Nestlé’s GoodNes recipe skill.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.