Do You Have Sound Cues?

Voice Assistants were one of the most popular gifts of the holiday season. No longer just novelty gadgets for selecting music, many households are already completing voice-enabled purchases. What does this mean for FMCG? Is your brand ready for the voice revolution?

Editor’s Note: The digital transformation challenges for brands show no sign of abatement.  As Agathe Caron discusses, voice assistant are growing rapidly as purchase tools, presenting a whole host of new challenges in the FMCG space.  Visual cues are critical in traditional FMCG buying, even in “regular” online buying, and learning how to translate these into something appropriate for a world of voice assistants is certainly something that will keep a number of marketers up at night.  She makes some good points that a lot of us will have to think hard about.

Crawl, walk, run. Click, touch, talk

Running is not the most “natural” way to move, but talking is definitely the most natural way for humans to communicate, and the quickest: on average, we pronounce 210 words per minute, while we type an average of only 70 words per minute. Talking, instead of typing, also frees your body: you can be anywhere, doing anything with your hands while you talk.

For these reasons, no one really doubts that Voice Assistants (which can take many different forms: a smartphone, a voice speaker, an umbrella…) will not remain purely gadgets for long.

They are already prevalent in the US: 25% of households owned one in 2018, and 75% are expected to in 2020 (Gartner Group study). The initial technical flaws are being fixed, allowing more people to join as early adopters. Indeed, the percent of misrecognized words was quite high in 2013, at 25% (Source: SimpleUsability). Today, it is closer to 5%.

With the massive adoption of this technology, practical usages are expanding quickly. Voice Assistants were mostly used to play music and answer general questions when they first hit the market. That seems like it was only yesterday.

But technology changes rapidly, and yesterday in the world of voice commerce is essentially a distant past. It was indeed just “yesterday” when my cousin’s son received a DVD he ordered through Alexa, without my cousin being aware of it. Her son is 3.

The product was on the family table and no one knew where it came from, who had bought it… Until the little one came in and claimed it was his. Why wouldn’t it be natural for him to ask Alexa about a product he wants, if she understands him and fulfills his requests? The product he wanted was delivered, as simply and effortlessly as if he had asked his Mom for an ice cream from the freezer.

For now, 9% of smart speaker owners in the UK use it to order products online (source: YouGov Custom Research 2018). In the US, 1 in every 5 consumers has already purchased something using a voice-controlled device such as Amazon Echo, according to the 2017 Future of Retail study by Walker Sands.

To say the FMCG industry will be impacted is an understatement. The e-commerce challenge will rapidly become the voice commerce challenge.

Voice Assistants provide one answer to the e-commerce challenge, and the AI world makes it easier to respond to consumers’ desire for making instant purchases.

As behavioral science tells us, we are essentially lazy. We are drawn to the quickest and simplest option. Without asking too much of us, Voice Assistants are already providing answers to questions we ask, based on some very simple signals we give. They rely on our past purchases, for instance: past grocery lists we made, frequencies of products bought, etc. and compile this data into one answer, personalized for the individual, where there would have been many options to wade through in online e-commerce.

At some point, why wouldn’t your pantry tell your Voice Assistant that you are almost out of biscuits? The ones you really like? The brand you always order. Then Alexa or Google, or even the pantry itself asks you if you would like some more, you say yes, and that’s it, it’s ordered. The how and when are already set; “they” already know when you’ll be home, “they” already know how you like your products delivered.

The merger of the Internet of Things and Voice Assistants is sure to be a game-changer for brands. Automatic refills will be a reality. In some households . . . they already are.

Laziness somehow explains why we tend to buy the same things over and over again:  “it works that way”. Browsing for new products takes time and effort, and if we are deprived of anything in our busy lives, it is time.

But Voice Assistants (with a little help from their AI friends) have this time and energy that we don’t. They will be browsing for us, comparing prices, product characteristics, customer reviews, etc. They will spot the products that could please us more, knowing what we like and what is important to us.

Shoppers have different priorities when it comes to choosing the products they buy: some care about the product origin, others about the eco-friendliness of the packaging, or the value for money, the sugar content, etc. Voice Assistants will continue to evolve and, knowing these preferences, will browse, compare, and suggest new options, depending on the new market context.

So while one might think that the brands we prefer had an advantage in the voice revolution, it appears that “the secret to competitive differentiation – and, hence, retention – will be constantly designing offers that meet a customer’s evolving criteria” (Niraj Dawar in the Harvard Business Review).


We know that packaging needs to express strong visual cues to influence consumer choice in physical stores and for online purchases. But what is useful as cues for voice purchases?

In 10 years, our interactions with technology went from clicking to touching; now we can simply talk to get things done. I ask about the weather; a sound resembling a human voice tells me there’s sunshine in London. I ask about juice products produced locally, and that same voice will suggest a product name and offer to buy it for me. I used to click or touch, and my eyes were exposed to dozens of choice options. Today I talk, and one answer only is spoken back to me.

Until automatic refills linked to the Internet of Things is real, customers must speak your brand or product’s name in order to place the order. “Sound cues” (jingles, taglines) will offer new opportunities to make your product emerge in an ocean of names, keywords, music, rhythms.

These sound cues call for new kinds of marketing tests: “If I want consumers to order my brand through Alexa, Echo or Google Home, can they and how easily? Can I make my ad campaigns evolve so customers know how to refer to, and ask for my brand with their Voice Assistants? So they know what jingle to sing, what slogan to repeat?”

Behind all this, we can see three challenges for brands:

  • Be the unique answer. This relies on all the information available to the voice assistants: product, price, delivery time, brand positioning, customer reviews, etc. Do you have voice SEO strategies?
  • Be voice-friendly. Have your own sound cues, so when shoppers attempt to purchase your product through Voice Assistants, they CAN.
  • The future may not be fully realized, but the Voice Assistants are already here. Have a Voice Strategy that dares to experiment, test and learn.

Exciting times for good listeners! And for marketing research!

Agathe Caron is the Knowledge & Innovation Manager at PRS IN VIVO.

This article was originally featured in Greenbook. For a copy of the article in PDF, please click here.