Why voice is on everyone's lips at CES

Ad Age Remotely: Industry experts weigh in

By Published on .

It is perhaps fitting that one of the topics most on people's lips at CES is voice.

The 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week could well have been a massive voice love-in -- voice technology features in cars, in homes, in your pocket and wherever you are. Of course, wherever you are is where marketers want to be, too.

We spoke to several executives on the ground in Sin City about what they're hearing when it comes to voice.

Google built a little rollercoaster for CES this year to showcase its voice assistant technology, and how it works both in and out of the home. While cute and buzzy, Google's vocal voice push should be making Amazon nervous, says Jared Belsky, CEO of 360i, an agency that literally wrote the voice playbook for marketers.

Although we are now just a couple of years into the development of voice and smart speaker technology, a duopoly has already emerged, says Belsky. An entire cottage industry of third-party products has blossomed around the two — smart light switches and smart microwaves that boast "works with Alexa" or Google. It has created, says Belsky, a "flywheel" effect that serves only to strengthen the duopoly's dominance.

However, if Belsky were to place a bet, he'd say Google has the advantage. "The war on voice is going to be won in your pocket, on your mobile device. Not your smart speaker," he says. "What's less understood is that Google is coming on extraordinarily strong, and their advantage is the smartphone. It's Android; it's what's in your pocket. That's going to lead to a lot of strength for Google."

Still, Belsky isn't ready to call it game over just yet -- and he has some advice for marketers when approaching this new landscape: Know your goals.

"if you're a CMO, the first thing is you have to ask yourself what's your strategy — is it entertainment-based strategy or is it utility-based?" he asks. A rental car company, for example, would probably do well to have a voice strategy built on utility, with FAQs, instructions and rental services. A cable company, on the other hand, might want an entertainment-centric approach that highlights its original programming.

Keeping functionality in mind was echoed by others -- even a few skeptics -- in the room.

Andrew Essex, the former Droga5 CEO and author of "The End of Advertising," urges marketers to take a cue from podcasts.

"The people who are working in voice can learn a lot from podcasting," he says. Marketers should see it as a "privilege to talk to people in their ears."

As such, he cautions marketers to remember context above all else.

"You have to respect their situation and not interfere, not intrude," he says. "The device can listen and it can talk. When a consumer wants to hear something, they don't want an ad, they want utility. If you want tell them something, be brief and be functional."

And despite voice providing marketers with new avenues to reach people, Essex says they have plenty to be worried about.

"Brands should mostly be scared of voice because voice has a tendency to get rid of brands. People want toothpaste and toilet paper. They don't necessarily want Crest," he says. "Be careful, because sometimes brand can become inessential in the world of voice."

This sentiment was also echoed by NPR's chief marketing executive Meg Goldthwaite.

"What marketers need to keep in mind when they think about voice as a platform is the power of audio and the power of sound in terms of helping you make a decision, helping something stay in your mind," she says.

"Most people think, 'I need to put a fancy image in front of your eyes in order for you to remember something. if you deliver powerful audio you are going to provide an imagination experience that's going to make that an even stronger message."

Case in point: The last time you heard something go bump in the night, were you scared by what you saw?

"That is what you have heard with your ears," says Goldthwaite. "And that is what makes your heart go."

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