Household Brands Seek Their Voice on Virtual Assistants
Household brands are building apps for voice-activated assistants, hoping to help or entertain their customers with new experiences on Google Home or
Alexa, but most are still chasing a hit.
Their apps might, however, help their efforts to improve other customer experiences, executives said.
The challenge with the apps themselves is that people turn to voice assistants to play games, control thermostats and even hail an Uber but they don’t usually think of calling on the companies that sell them breakfast cereal or coffee, said Andrew Marder, until recently an analyst at research and advisory company
It is easy to see why companies are prioritizing voice.
Smart speakers are in 29% of U.S. households, and 40% of adults use voice assistants, according to a February report from research company Nielsen Global Media.
Amazon’s list of 2019’s top 10 Alexa skills, as the company calls voice apps on its platform, includes easy ways to listen to Spotify and TED Talks, and interactive quizzes based on Nickelodeon’s TV show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and National Public Radio’s radio show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” But there are no showings from everyday household brands.
“It is much more difficult for the everyday brands to find a real foothold in the voice space because it’s not a natural fit,” Mr. Marder said. People often use such companies’ voice apps once or twice, then forget about them, he said.
Companies say that not having a smash hit isn’t the same as failing. It is a chance to learn what works, what won’t, and how to make the experience better.
for example, learned from the rollout of voice apps like the GoodNes cooking aid and Ask Purina, an app for choosing a dog breed, that consumers needed prompting to use them, said Sebastian Szczepaniak, global head of sales and e-business at the food and beverage maker.
This is a lesson that the company kept in mind when it released the Nespresso Assistant voice app, which it developed with RAIN, an agency that specializes in voice and conversational artificial intelligence. Nestlé debuted the app in the Netherlands.
“Branded apps generally require an explicit mention of the voice app name to be invoked, and these voice app names or brand names are not always top of mind for consumers at the moment they need something,” Mr. Szczepaniak said. “So you have to build and sustain awareness around branded voice apps.”
Nestlé views voice apps as central to its larger push to provide personalized customer experiences. Some 70% of Nestlé customers expect a personalized experience, and the figure is higher among younger consumers, Mr. Szczepaniak said.
The company wants to increase the share of customer contacts it considers personalized to 40% by the end of 2021, up from the current 20%, he said.
Whether voice apps get heavy use or not, Nestlé can use them to glean information about customers that could be useful for personalizing future experiences across platforms.
“This is a way for us to not only deliver a new feature, but it’s a way for us to collect new attributes from the consumer,” Mr. Szczepaniak said.
Other companies echoed that.
About 20% of the questions that consumers asked Tide’s voice app about stain treatments concerned problems that the
Procter & Gamble Co.
brand doesn’t have products for, like cleaning sneakers, according to RAIN, which worked with Tide on the app. That gives Tide information that can become fodder for product development.
“At P&G we are always working to find new ways to make our brands more useful,” the company said in a statement. “In this spirit, we have explored the use of Alexa and other voice-enabled technology. It’s a learning process continually evolving to fit the needs of our consumers.”
General Mills Inc.
worked with Amazon and Xandra Inc., an interactive production studio, this year to release an Alexa skill, “The Story of Lucky Charms,” in which users chase Lucky the Leprechaun toward the end of the rainbow in a choose-your-own-adventure story that can last as long as 12 minutes.
Brands like Lucky Charms cereal have to test how far they can stretch in new environments, said Susan Pitt, director of brand experience for cereal at General Mills. “This is about learning and understanding what kind of role we can play through this technology with Lucky,” she said.
Reaching customers has become harder since the days when Lucky Charms could interrupt children’s programming with inescapable 30-second commercials, Ms. Pitt said.
“The bar is a bit higher,” Ms. Pitt said. Consumers, she said, want to know, “What are you doing to help me in this moment? What is your brand doing to help me in this moment, or to entertain me, or whatever it might be?”
It is too soon to gauge the results, Ms. Pitt said.
decided its voice app should improve customers’ experiences with its web-connected “smart” appliances. For example, its app lets Alexa users set the oven to a certain temperature.
The company eventually noticed that most people using the preheat command were setting the oven to 350 degrees, according to Jason Mathew, Whirlpool’s senior director of global connected strategy. Whirlpool made that the default if users didn’t specify a target temperature.
“And then let’s say you want it to be specific, you could say, ‘Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.’ It would still do that,” he said. “But what we’re trying to do is fill in the blanks. What we’re trying to do is make it easier, simpler for the consumer.”
One household brand doing well in voice is poultry producer Butterball LLC, whose Alexa skill answers questions about cooking a turkey, thawing a turkey and what to do when your turkey doesn’t thaw in time to cook it. This is the same sort of material that Butterball employees have been providing by phone on its Turkey Talk Line since 1981.
People used the app roughly 10,000 times during its holiday launch in 2018, according to Butterball. That figure grew in 2019, with 16,000 sessions for just Thanksgiving.
Rebecca Welch, senior brand manager at Butterball, said the company talked constantly to consumers about the app and, critically, how to find it. It was featured on NBC’s “Today” show and in Butterball’s social media and marketing channels. And Talk Line experts, who conduct radio and TV interviews around Thanksgiving, mentioned that people could also try the Alexa app.
“It was definitely a priority to make sure that we talked about having the skill and that we made sure we included ways to access the skill in all of our communications during the initial launch so that people not only knew that it was there, but they knew how to get the information from Alexa,” she said
—Mr. Kornelis is a writer in Seattle.
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