Just when brands were beginning to figure out how to work with search, display and video on mobile devices, technology changed the game again. Now people simply talk to their device of choice and Alexa, Home or Siri delivers. Only a few people today use voice to buy goods, but that day is approaching, says Nigel Hollis, Chief Global Analyst at Kantar Millward Brown.
And what will that day mean for brands? For many it is going to mean a whole new world of hurt.
Voice-first interactions with AI assistants mean that people won’t need to remember what brand of detergent they buy because the AI will remember for them. “Alexa, buy more detergent.” Great for the incumbent, not so much for the wannabe. Even when people do name a specific brand they will have to think of that brand first, a process which will favor the best known and most salient brands in the category. “Alexa, buy more Tide.” Great for the big brand, not so much for the little one. And even when a brand buys advertising to suggest an alternative to what is asked for people will still need to be convinced to switch. It is highly likely that BOGOF offers and discounts will prevail, undermining margins and threatening long-term brand sustainability.
We already see the effects of hard-wired loyalty when it comes to grocery shopping lists on e-commerce. 55% of online shoppers use the same list from one purchase to the next, according to a recent global study from Kantar Worldpanel, and, as a result the repeat purchase rate for many brands has increased significantly compared to offline. The voice-first world is only going to exacerbate this inertia, locking people into buying the same brand time after time, because, let’s face it, most people don’t care enough about brands to bother changing their order every time they buy. Unless the brand lets them down, people will simply find it easier and more convenient to buy the same as last time. And while this is a heuristic that many of us use to choose brands in store we are more susceptible to outside influences offline like point of sale which help trigger different choices.
This brings me to another shift that brands will need to face as we move from a visual to verbal interface. Visual recognition plays a huge role in activating purchase today. We see the brand name in organic search and familiarity makes us click on the link. We see an end-aisle product display and check out what is on offer. We see an outdoor ad just before entering the store and it reminds us to stock up. All negated by the shift to voice. No visual cues to trigger brand purchase just the basic need which can be satisfied with a word.
A voice-first world
In a voice-first world being bought first becomes the must win battle. The chances that a brand will get a second chance to be bought will decrease dramatically once the AI has another brand name in its memory, which means that marketers are going to have to do everything they can to be chosen the first time that someone buys the category. Brands like Gillette have used this introductory strategy for years, mailing razors to men on their 18th birthday, but we can expect to see a lot more free sampling in the coming years. It is an expensive strategy but one that will become more economically viable as the potential lifetime value of a customer increases. And, of course, there will be the opportunity to intervene when people ask their AI for recommendations, but ensuring a presence will no doubt come at a price, further favoring bigger budgets.
Beyond that marketers are going to have to work hard to build brand salience so that when a need arises their brand is the first one that comes to mind. And they are going to have to do that without visual cues to trigger that response. Mind you, many marketers miss the importance of visual cues because we still see advertising and point of sale materials where a brand is not featured or even seen. Going forward brands are going to have to find ways to create powerful and compelling associations that ensure they remain the most salient.
One of the most important things will be to develop audible branding assets that can act as a trigger to evoke positive impressions of the brand. Steve Keller, an expert in the field of audio branding, suggests that brands need to get serious about voice interaction,
“Burger King’s “Ok, Google. What is the Whopper Burger?” experiment was a clever stunt, but the real challenge is to find a way to make your brand voice a natural part of the conversation, one that is recognizable, congruent, and distinct. What’s particularly exciting is that the technology is still emerging. There’s a real opportunity for “first mover” brands to capture the sonic space in their market category.”
In a voice-first world big, salient brands may prosper but less well-known brands are going to have to work hard to establish their place on in the AI’s memory. Brands may have a bit of time to define their voice-first strategies because AI is still facing challenges with natural human voice communications. But, technology moves much faster than marketing and will likely catch up in the blink of an eye. Now is the time for all brands to find their own distinctive voice.