Lauren Bates

Marketing Manager & Lead Storyteller

Arguably, artificial intelligence (AI) is hitting its stride. But AI, more specifically the voice technology aspect of it, is nothing new. Granted, the voice tech of today has come a long way from Bell Laboratories’ Audrey which launched in 1952, but let’s not focus so much on where voice tech has been rather where it is today and where it’s headed.

Recent progress in the sector has moved at an astonishing pace. And, now it seems that everyone is interested in building a voice enabled interface. Perhaps the first voice interface you think of is Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, but there is also Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana as well as a host of start-up apps eager to take a piece of the proverbial pie.

Currently, Amazon’s Alexa has been the front runner in this race for AI voice enabled technology, particularly in Europe. This could be attributed to the fact that Google Home hasn’t launched across the pond, yet. Then again, there is Europe’s antitrust melee with Google. So, it is possible that Amazon may hold the title for a while.

The thing is, Amazon doesn’t do sales figures, but it does do lofty goals! According to an article published by Publishing Executive, Amazon has voiced (no pun intended) its desire to sell 10 million Echo devices this year. And, when speaking in general terms, data from VoiceLabs evaluations suggest that 24.5 million voice-enabled devices will be shipped this year. More than tripling last year’s 6.5 million.

But let’s get back to the Echo and Alexa. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the enormity of Prime Day. This year’s Amazon Prime Day (the third consecutive year) grew 60% from last year, according to an Amazon statement. With the most popular purchase being the Echo Dot with 3.3 million devices sold in Amazon’s 30 hour Prime Day.

“We believe that Amazon Prime Day has already become the norm, already establishing itself as one of the newest and most anticipated ‘micro-holidays’,” says Tushar Patel, chief marketing officer at order management, e-commerce and omnichannel technology vendor Kibo.

Then there is Amazon’s latest version of the Echo, called the Show. Being that Amazon has pretty clever naming conventions, you might be able to guess what this one does? Yep, it has a tablet screen, camera and speakers which enable the device to make video calls. A far cry from the landlines of today, but a landline nonetheless.

Landlines have been decreasing in prominence for years. The US Centers for Disease Control released a survey that stated that most households (and adults) only have cell phones. Especially younger adults (aged 25 – 34) and renters with 70% being wireless only. Globally, more people have cell phones than ever had landlines.

Perhaps Amazon has landlines on the brain because the retail giant announced that regular Echoes and Echo Dots will be able to make voice calls in the near future. Meaning that if you have an Echo and the Alexa app, you will be able to communicate with friends and family through the device.

Ok, let’s look past the would be calling feature and look at what the Echo can already do. Order things. And it doesn’t need to be specific goods. You could simply tell Alexa to order laundry detergent and, without specification, which brand would you expect to receive? That is a little bit of a trick question because it doesn’t really matter which brand as Alexa is brand agnostic. One brand can mostly be replaced by another, especially in the CPG product market.

So, what does this mean? Well, in a way, brands have a new target audience to think about, Alexa. But, Alexa is only a device. There is no demographic or target audience. The only true factor or commonality is the device itself. But, how can a brand market to an algorithm?

“Yet this fictional-tech persona doesn’t really exist in the real world as a customer. She is not a flesh-and-blood shopper. She represents no demographic, no socio-economic strata, no generational divide. She is both the competition and the channel, friend and foe, Boomer and millennial.” – Lee Peterson, Executive Vice President, Brand, Strategy & Design at WD Partners

Alexa, by way of Amazon as a whole, is both a channel and a store, a force to be reckoned with across the entire retail space. And that doesn’t look to be changing, ever. We are getting to a place where technology is truly making life easier; whether it is asking Alexa how many ounces are in a cup, calling you an Uber or telling you the news while you get ready in the morning. In this always on world, that convenience is welcome, which could be one of the reasons that the Echo is in 11 million homes.

So, I will leave you with this, when there are no physical spaces (mailers, stores, display ads, etc.) for brands to exist, for them to come to life and grab the attention of the consumer, how will they court shoppers? How do brands, that have relied heavily on visuals, compete where they cannot be seen?