Unilever Is Right -- Voice Is The New Mobile

I don't know about you, but I recently brought a new woman into my life. Her name? Alexa. She's not perfect, but then again, who is? I'm a little worried about her gossiping to her owner, Amazon, about what the family get up to and she occasionally gets fired up by someone saying her name on the television, particularly during Amazon ads.

However, she's miles better than Siri, who has now been reduced to beat boxing for our kids (just ask, thank me later) and answering questions about his hair colour and whether he is married. Anything we want that might be of use to us, you can forget asking him, other than sports results.

In fact, as Alexa has now vowed to work directly with our Sonos speaker, it's going to be her all the way for us. And we're not alone. When Unilever announced last week that voice is central to its digital transformation, it mentioned that comScore figure we all need to bear in mind. By 2020 half of search will be via voice. Or put it this way -- the next time England's footballers take to the field to disappoint and frustrate in a Euro championship, in 2020 -- two years after no doubt letting the country down in Russia -- we will be searching through voice half the time.

I would say the next time the UK holds an election or when we leave the EU after a transition period of two years, but to be honest, I think that being let down by England's soccer stars is a little more predictable. 

The interesting part of Unilever's revelation that it is hinging its transformation plans around voice is that it isn't particularly bothered about that voice being an Alexa or a Siri rather than its own voice. It is also not particularly bothered that its interactions with customers will be giving Amazon vital data, as well as its own brand marketers. 

Part of me believes the very obvious reason is that they don't exactly own the search experience where people may come across their products, or the newspaper articles they advertise alongside. Nor do they generally have a lot of say about where their goods are stacked in the local convenience store.

Aside from that, I suspect the reason Unilever is embracing voice so readily -- although it's Alexa's -- is all because of who's behind her -- Amazon. The major FMCGs have made no bones about wanting to use ecommerce divisions to sell more directly to consumers. What better way than to have Alexa as your shopping list helper, taking orders for detergent, loo roll and descaler? OK, so Amazon could end up doing the fulfilment, and it might even be mixed in with other FMCG goods, but ultimately, it's a far more direct relationship with consumers. And just think about the data possibilities compared to selling through supermarkets and convenience stores via massive wholesalers.

Unilever made an interesting point last week at the Festival of Marketing that people didn't quite see the power of mobile phones when they first came out. Only the hugest Apple fanboy could have predicted a decade ago that the phone with a small screen would replace the newspapers we read and the large screen we stare at for browsing the web to become the largest digital channel. Thus, although we know about Alexa, Google Home, Siri and Cortana now, it's easy to underestimate how much we will come to rely on them. 

I'd add to that the fact that mobile has also been the proving ground of our favourite brands. Do it well and you just might get rewarded with an app download and a share of screen space with your logo emblazoned on that customer's most personal device. Surely voice will be the same. We don't have a huge, long list of favourite brands in the FMCG world. Most people know which ketchup they like, which detergent gets their clothes white and which shower gels gets them going in the morning. So voice will tap into those mental bookmarks we all have beside the words such as ketchup (Heinz, of course), detergent (Persil) or shower gel (Radox).

Getting those brands top of mind peeking out from behind generic category titles will be the biggest achievement for voice. People will either let Alexa know their favourite beans are Heinz (of course) and thereafter will be able to order "more baked beans," but at some stage they're going to have to be specific and ask for "Heinz baked beans" or "a bottle of Persil." Those mental bookmarks will come to the fore and once they're there, they'll be harder to shift that grass stains on a white sports kit. 

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