Last year, NYU professor Scott Galloway made a pretty bold statement: “Death, for brands, has a name . . . Alexa.” Galloway argued that over the past 50 years, companies have spent billions building brands through packaging, store placement, ad creative, and many other methods. And while the digital landscape has altered that significantly, many of the same principles still applied. But with voice, that all goes away. No visual cues. No logo recognition. And a gatekeeper owned and operated by a vicious competitor (Amazon).
Galloway’s concerns are similar to many that marketers have (ahem) voiced as the rise of smart speakers and voice assistants has grown at an impressive clip. Various studies over the last year have shown that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be in voice, about 30% of searches will be done without a screen, and there will be more than 21.4 million smart speakers in the U.S. alone.
IBM’s chief digital officer Bob Lord, however, doesn’t see a death knell but rather a golden opportunity. “When you think about AI or augmented intelligence, what it allows you to do is express your brand, and for the consumer to experience your brand, in exciting new ways,” says Lord. “I think it’s a new way for marketers to think about how to get information from their consumers that they were never able to before.”
Of course, Lord has a vested interest in this. IBM’s Watson Assistant offers brands the ability to build and customize how they use AI and voice assistants. But unlike Alexa, with Watson brands are able to keep the proprietary data gathered through its interactions with people. “It’s the one thing that resonates most with all the marketing and brand managers we talk to,” says Lord. “Because still to this day, whether it’s Facebook or Google or whomever, they keep the data on you. They give you results, but you rarely have any access to the raw data to get these consumer insights that you need. So if you create a tool with Watson Assistant, you’re going to get insights about your consumers that will allow you to outmaneuver your competition.”
The key to gaining access to that valuable information, and keeping your brand alive and well in the age of voice, is to recognize that this is a medium of utility and service. Lord points to work they’ve done with the Munich Airport and Brazilian bank Bradesco. In Munich, the company’s AI tech is behind a humanoid robot customer service assistant named Josie Pepper. For Bradesco, one of Brazil’s largest banks with 4,600 branches and 94,000 employees, IBM created an AI-powered virtual assistant to answer questions about bank products and services. So far, customer satisfaction levels have been boosted to 85%, with 94% of questions being handled by the virtual agent.
Lord says the primary goal should be to provide a service beyond the brand’s product. That could be as simple as a brand like Pillsbury providing cookie recipes and instructions, or Maserati helping you install a garage door opener. “The brand starts to become more of a service than it ever was,” says Lord. “So the more creative you are, and how you anticipate the utility of the product that you’re selling, it opens up a whole new world.”