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Will Voice Search Hurt Brands And Agencies?

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Will Voice Search Hurt Brands And Agencies?

As algorithms play a bigger and bigger part in how we make decisions, and how decisions are made for us, it’s interesting to ponder what the effects might be on brands and their agencies, particularly as we transit from a text-focused way of searching for answers to one that is more voice oriented.

Economists Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke have suggested that, as platforms take more of a gatekeeper role in our decision-making, that the choices we think we have, and the options we believe are real, are being increasingly distorted. Platforms, they say, can not only change pricing to reflect market conditions, they can also individualize offers based on data, and as they learn by doing, they will effectively come to set what shoppers each pay, without human intervention. Combine this with the shift to mega-scale in critical parts of the economy and you have what amounts to a significant shift in competitiveness.

So shoppers may feel they are making the best decisions based on the information presented to them, but in fact the information itself is much less objective than they might like to think. And as people become more time-poor and rushed, and our dependence on these decision shortcuts grows, the influence of platforms on so many aspects of our lives will only increase.

New forms of search are also changing how we query what we need to know. Mary Meeker’s most recent report on the state of the internet highlighted that as voice recognition accuracy improves, voice itself now constitutes 20% of mobile searches. We are shifting away from the written systems we have relied on in recent years to ways of finding what we want that are more mobile, and as we do so we are using new mechanisms like voice search across a broader expanse of our lives: as a personal assistant; to find fun and entertainment; to look for general information; and to search for local information.

At the same time, voice devices like Amazon Echo are gaining traction. There are now 11 million such devices installed in the United States. Even though that number is tiny compared to the total number of households at this point, Scott Galloway has put those three aspects together – algorithms, search and access to new devices – and focused on the effect that Amazon alone will have on our shopping decisions going forward.

With 52% of US households now having an Amazon Prime membership, the company has the means to powerfully disrupt the retail landscape, he says. As consumers shift to voice search and use devices like Amazon’s Echo system to connect with Amazon’s Alexa voice service, brands will find themselves at a considerable disadvantage. Effectively, Galloway believes that voice search will drive greater commoditization as consumers choose items rather than brands, and platforms deliver those products at prices that fit with consumers’ own buying habits. That will motivate more consumers to choose house brands over other brands that may fall outside of what is being suggested. “Brands are disadvantaged because there is no way for them to show the investments they’ve made [in the] online [world],” he says. In fact, “Brands will not matter at all because of voice [searches].”

There’s some evidence for his concerns. When research firm L2 used Amazon’s Echo to buy more than 450 products across a range of categories, they found that bigger brands fared better than lesser known brands but also that an overwhelming number of products that Alexa suggested were available to Amazon Prime members. “[P]roducts with Amazon Choice designation, which is given to the top brand in each product group, were far more likely to be recommended for first-time orders. The next most common category was Best Sellers, along with products with the top search rank on Amazon’s website.”

In many ways, that’s not at all not surprising. Amazon is simply closing the loop in its ecosystem by keeping as much as possible within its own domains. By vertically integrating search, sourcing, purchase and delivery, it has provided a shortcut that rewards those who stick with Amazon.

Other brands do the same. Apple wants us to stay with Apple; Facebook wants us to stick with Facebook. The power of being a global ecosystem lies in providing the customer with everything they are looking for from the one place. And the way brands like Amazon do that of course is to drive up the convenience factors. Other options are available, they just may not be quite as easy or as rewarding as making more of the decisions in one place based on information that feels right (because it has been personally tailored algorithmically for the shopper).

The Shift To Voice Search: Friend Or Foe?

The key concern for brands is what happens to their online presence and profile as ecosystems intensify and the nature of search changes. Will such a shift make branding redundant?

Before I answer that, let’s take a moment to consider why this shift to voice search should be welcomed. While it’s easy to position such technology as a threat to the way things have been done, that same concern is regularly leveled at innovations. Such assessments often turn out to be exaggerated because people don’t change what they do as radically nor as quickly as analysts would like to believe. Let’s not forget either that voice search delivers buyers greater power to search and therefore increased ease. It has the potential to usher in a new level of sophisticated purchasing that delivers new options and opens up whole new ways to buy, and that’s exciting and empowering for shoppers. But, in all likelihood, voice search will also continue to sit alongside technologies we already know, including current ways of searching, for some years to come.

I for one think it is too early and too tempting to write off the whole of the branded economy just yet. There is no doubt that voice search, and the other technology changes we can expect, will challenge how brands present themselves, and that those that fail to adapt will find themselves in trouble. But while voice search certainly represents a challenge, I am not rushing to judge that barrier as insurmountable. In fact, I’m not even convinced it is the true problem. Rather I think the rise of voice search is a symptom of a bigger struggle that more brands are confronting today: the ability to gain traction in markets where consumers are increasingly motivated by those convenience factors that technology companies are so adept at resolving.

The rise of voice search does reinforce some things. The battle for awareness and recall is only going to become more difficult because voice search will literally change what consumers ask for – meaning that, as we have already found with the evolution of text-based search, what consumers are shown or told all comes down to the query they make. The pace at which brands will evolve is only going to accelerate. Brands are going to need to find new ways to articulate value in the face of competitors who understand their consumers better than they do. But the real dilemma it seems to me is one of a lack of true simplicity. Too many brands still make it too hard to shop with and buy from them, compared to how easy and simple it feels to buy from the likes of Amazon.

The real issue here isn’t search, it’s delivery.

The way to address that is to recognize that the days of marketing working in silos are over. Brand cannot be separated from UI or from search, for example, because consumers make no such distinctions. The brands they rely on are those that provide them with what is needed with the least friction. In order to build powerful brands for tomorrow, marketers need to build brands that are more closely and creatively aligned with people’s lives.

What Could This mean For Agencies?

That quickly calls into question the whole role of communications agencies going forward. Because if communication is increasingly tied to access, as it is in the case of voice search, then the parameters within which communications agencies must fashion answers are going to get a lot broader. The interface, the sales funnel and the supply funnel need to be considered and fashioned together in the light of what a brand knows about the people who buy from it. Creativity will be less about what people notice and more about motivates and rewards them at every step of the purchase process.

In the next era of product marketing, communication agencies will need to articulate their value in a world where actions really will speak louder than the stories and images they have become so skilled at creating.

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2 Comments

Kathy Finsterle on August 28th, 2017 said

Excellent article and very thorough on the subject matter. I have personally seen the influence of voice search on user queries and search results. More and more, we’re seeing location based queries and results and people asking questions in hopes of returning a quick result (as opposed to looking to research themselves). Often the results that are returned don’t even warrant a website visit. It’s incredibly efficient on the part of the search engines, but somewhat frustrating for us as marketers.

The question then becomes how much does traffic to your website really matter? With people being redirected to third party sites, maps, and local and Q&A results, we have to consider a multifaceted approach. I feel that this trend is one that is here to stay and we’ll need to become increasingly creative in our marketing strategies to capture people early in their search and drive business by keeping up with the pace of our users which includes voice search!

Mark Di Somma
Twitter: markdisomma
on August 29th, 2017 said

Great points Kathy. Like everything else, the time that people want to spend on tasks is condensing, and that’s a present and future challenge for brands. It also raises important questions around the levels of detail required and what brands should focus on in their messaging going forward. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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