Opinion

The answer to Mark Ritson’s voice search problems can be found in the pub

Following an ominous piece from Mark Ritson on Amazon's Alexa, Shaun Varga considers how the choice between house white and Guinness might hold the answer we've been (voice) searching for.

Earlier this month, Mark Ritson penned a piece in UK publication Marketing Week about the perils of voice search for both brands and retailers. It hit the mark, as ever. But I can’t help thinking this is simply a new manifestation of an old problem.

Brand awareness helps tip decisions in your favour when there are decisions to be made. Even trivial ones, like many FMCG purchases. When faced with an aisle-full of options, hopefully the consumer chooses your brand over the competition. This is the theory, and indeed is often the practice. But what happens when there isn’t a decision to be made? When there is no aisle?

The voice search problem is that when you run out of Lurpak and shout over to ‘Alexa’ to add more butter to your shopping list, you probably won’t be getting more Lurpak. You’ll be getting ‘butter’. Someone else gets to make the choice as to which one.

When you’re not forced to choose a brand you probably won’t bother. You’ll just ask for the product. It’s exactly like being in a pub.

In a pub, most people ‘voice search’ a product category. ‘Pint of lager’. ‘Gin and tonic’. ‘Glass of white wine’. Some people, not many, will name a branded gin with their tonic, and if they do it will probably be a premium brand. For this reason the Holy Grail of drinks marketing is “the call” – when people actually specify your brand when they order. (Only one brand has ever nailed this: Guinness.) ‘House white’ and ‘house gin’ are the pub equivalents of own label.

Even if you’re asked to name a brand, you may not be able to rely on a visual prompt. In a big pub, the optics may be elsewhere; the wine may be tucked away in a cabinet. Which leaves whatever’s in your memory banks, or whatever the server prompts you with.

So really there is no difference between talking to Alexa and talking to a barman*.

If you ask for a product you’ll probably get the default (house) version. You may or may not get asked to name your preferred brand, and you’ll probably name the first brand that pops into your head. Or buy what the server suggests.

This is very familiar territory. In the world of booze, there is a world of difference between on-trade marketing and off-trade marketing, and for good reason. The reason is the on-trade is predominantly a ‘voice search’ environment, and off-trade is a shopper marketing environment (and both influenced by brand.)

I suggest that a similar divergence will now happen in FMCG marketing, between the traditional channels and the intermediated digital channels. I don’t see this as an existential threat to brands, I think it is more likely that marketers will develop new techniques to deal with people buying stuff through ‘voice search’, as drinks marketers have been doing for decades.

* Except that if it’s an Aussie barman, you’ll probably get better conversation out of the computer.

Shaun Varga is the founder of independent consultancy Re:Imagination. The original version of this piece can be found here.

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