Oren Jacob, CEO of San Francisco-based software company PullString, and his wife used to load up their three kids and go to Costco, filling their car with toilet paper and paper towels.
"From the day Alexa moved in, we have not been back," he says.
Alexa and Google Home didn't even exist three years ago. Yet VoiceLabs, a firm that helps companies be successful with voice applications, predicts 33 million voice-first devices will be in circulation by the end of 2017. Gartner has predicted 30 percent of browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020, leaving many buying decisions to voice assistants choosing brands from an invisible virtual grocery shelf.
"Search represents an important acquisition channel," says Barry Lowenthal, president of The Media Kitchen. "What will happen when that changes?"
Waiting for paid opportunities
The voice shelf, says Joe Maceda, invention studio lead at Mindshare North America, "is probably only going to be two or three brands. If you're the third or fourth brand in a category, there's significant risk."
So brands and agencies are looking to create identities for when consumers can't see the products, such as offering recipes or developing a unique "voice" or audio signature that makes their brands instantly recognizable.
Though Amazon users see sponsored products at the top of web search listings, there's currently no way to sponsor products on Echo devices. Brands, however, can offer voice-only deals exclusive to Amazon, though those are negotiated with vendors and not paid opportunities. Products on Google Express are recommended based on relevance, order history and other preferences. It does not offer paid media opportunities behind product placement, but a company spokesperson says Google is "looking at ways to create a business model that will provide a great user experience."
Most brands, says Maceda, "are sort of ... waiting for paid opportunities in search to be available via voice."
Experts say Alexa's Skills and Google's Actions—essentially apps—are good ways to dabble in the space so brands will be prepared as voice proliferates.
Many voice applications are "not about directly driving [sales], but getting people to use more," says Maceda. "Meaning, 'Here are recipe suggestions for this product' geared toward getting people to use more of it. A happy byproduct: Getting people more used to engaging with your brand with voice."
'Toe in the water'
Tide's app, Stain Remover, for example, doles out advice for more than 200 types of stains. Campbell's Kitchen helps consumers choose recipes and then helps guide the cooking process. Nestlé has rolled out a "GoodNes" skill, which pairs voice cooking instructions with an online guide. The company is building out a team of employees dedicated to conversational brand engagement.
"It was an experiment to get our toe into in the water," says Nestlé digital innovation manager Josh Baillon. "It's something we're going to explore further."
Clorox doesn't have specific voice-marketing programs, but it's talking to Amazon, says Chief Marketing Officer Eric Reynolds. "We're hoping they're going to be as fair about algorithms in voice as they have been in search," he says. Those algorithms rank higher well-priced, well-reviewed items that ship with Prime.
The company is stepping up advertising on Amazon, though it says it's not aimed at improving Clorox's voice position. "We're treating it as a media investment," Reynolds says.
Amazon says the best way for a brand to be included in Alexa shopping is to have a good product that ships with Prime.
Holograms and more
"The most important thing is to get in with the appropriate business goals and investment," says VoiceLabs founder and CEO Adam Marchick. The platform provides real-time data to help developers understand how consumers use their voice applications. "There are large brands I won't name that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a voice app and have 10 users," he says.
The future of shopping won't be completely blind. Amazon debuted its Echo Show—an Alexa-powered device with a 7-inch screen—this year, and Google is reportedly building its own competitive product.
360i's Michael Dobbs, VP of SEO, says voice-search shopping might prompt a consumer to watch a video before they make a big purchase.
Tham Khai Meng, co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy, says they're thinking about how 3-D holograms or the ability to feel or smell a product using technology could factor into shopping.
But brands are still concerned about sound. "AI and voice and bots are an amazing new creative canvas for brands," says Winston Binch, chief digital officer of Deutsch North America. Deutsch launched a practice, "Great Machine," earlier this year to help brands bring creativity to technologies that use artificial intelligence. "We need to think about ... how [brands] function more as humans," says Binch, calling it "brand humanity."
Some experts believe Alexa's voice will give way to "brand voices" that interact with consumers on voice platforms. On Google Home, developers can choose from four voices, and some actions (like meditation and mindfulness content service Headspace) already use their own voices to interact with users.
Binch says the next frontier will be understanding and responding with intention. If a user asked a home assistant to play some music, the AI might be able to pick up on micro-cues—maybe even knowing what kind of music depending on your mood.
Mindshare's Maceda says brands have spent billions on package design to stand out on the physical shelf and now need to find that equivalent on the voice shelf. This can range from the sound of water first bursting from a shower head for bath products, or the sound of a peanut butter jar being twisted open. Brands can even start developing audio mnemonics, or audio "logos," like the Green Giant's "ho ho ho" or the five-note Intel sound mark.