“Alexa, Is Voice the Future of Marketing?”

Amazon owned Christmas 2017! The Alexa application (app), which is required to operate the Amazon Echo device, was the most downloaded app for Android and iPhones on Christmas Day, which indicates the device was a popular gift beneath the tree this holiday season. While Amazon doesn’t disclose its precise sales numbers, it did announce in a recent news release that “Amazon devices also had its best holiday yet, with tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide.” Google trailed in second place with its Home line of speakers and Apple was nowhere to be seen with its delayed HomePod.

The adoption of voice-enabled technology, such as Siri, Amazon Echo, and Google Home, is sparking a revolution in the use of voice. Marketers need to adapt to meet this new challenge. In many households, it is now usual to ask Alexa about the weather, to play your favorite Rolling Stones track, or to put kitchen towels onto the shopping list. Until now, the screen dominated, but by the end of 2017 it had been estimated there were more than 30 million voice-activated digital assistants across the U.S. alone, and that by 2020, more than half of mobile searches will be completed using voice.

The rise of voice poses unique challenges for brands. Scott Galloway, best-selling author of the “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google,” believes the rise of bots and the growth of voice-enabled devices threatens the very future of the brand.  Talking specifically about Amazon and the Alexa-enabled Echo device, he says, “I think you effectively have a company that has conspired with a billion consumers and technology to destroy brands.” To prove his point, Galloway gave a presentation at L2’s Amazon Clinic using the Amazon Echo to order some AAA batteries, such as any shopper might do. Rather than providing the consumer a choice, however—or suggesting the leading brand of Energizer AAA batteries—Alexa recommends the ecommerce giant’s own brand, AmazonBasics. Alexa is making her choice based upon the weight of reviews and star ratings, even if the more expensive branded alternative is a better product. With over 52 percent of homes in the U.S. possessing an Amazon Prime account, Galloway believes the company will drive growth to become the world’s first trillion-dollar company through the combination of Prime and the Alexa-enabled device. This will put it in a very powerful position.

Galloway may have a point. The rise of the voice assistant and bot marketing threatens to be a very disruptive technology indeed, particularly when all you are trying to do is order your usual brand of toothpaste. When we crave ease and simplicity, we may be intolerant of Alexa trying to recommend an alternative brand of toothpaste—and this has significant implications for the role of the brand and the importance of branding in influencing consumer behavior. The voice assistant has the potential to become a powerful gatekeeper and that has profound consequences for the future of the brand.

At the moment, it is unclear how ad revenue will be raised from this technology. Consumers may be unreceptive to the intrusion of ads into their daily interaction with a voice assistant. Amazon recently moved to ban the ad network VoiceLabs from generating money from Alexa applications using sponsored messages, potentially closing an avenue to monetize this new technology. But whatever the future holds for the development of voice, marketers need to understand the challenge it brings to the brand and the potentially massive disruption it could cause in their relationship with the consumer.

In the “age of voice,” listening to your customers has never been more important, and it is also clear Amazon will have an important say in how this technology develops. Brands should not be deaf to this change and its implications for the future of marketing.