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How brands can find their own voice in a screenless future

Amazon Alexas and Google Homes have been popping up in households around the world, and it is expected that there will be 8 billion voice assistants by 2023. While so far, the technology has mainly been used for running other smart devices in the home, asking novelty questions or setting timers, there is strong potential for fashion and beauty brands to focus on the retail aspect of the experience.

Voice commerce sales totaled a whopping $2.1 billion last year, and it is predicted that consumers will use the technology for almost a fifth of their total spending by 2021. For brands, this is not only a new a new opportunity to connect with its customers, but an important new sales channel. 

Last year we spoke to Amazon Alexa’s founder, William Tunstall-Pedoe, on the Innovators podcast, on how voice tech will impact retail. Although the technology is still in its early stages of development, Tunstall-Pedoe envisioned a future that is all connected: “I think you’ll be surprised in a couple of years if you speak to a device and it doesn’t reply.” He believes that the technology will be transformative, with the artificial intelligence behind voice assistants eventually interconnecting everything around us. 

As far into the future as it sounds, this concept may be happening a lot sooner than we think. 

From creating moments of discovery to enabling better store interactions, we explore 3 ways that brands retailers can be leveraging voice tech in order to enhance customer experience.

Gaining traction
Rebook’s limited edition Club C sneakers

One of the biggest challenges retailers and brands face when engaging in voice interactions is how to get their product discovered. The lack of a screen and the current intelligence of algorithms means that shopping on these platforms is generally a linear journey, and unless the customer is looking for a specific brand, surfacing as a suggestion is virtually impossible. 

One way retailers can adapt to the technology is by utilizing it in their marketing strategy. Reebok, for example teamed up with Amazon and Google for the launch of its Swarovski sneakers collaboration. Consumers could win a pair of the limited edition trainers by asking their voice assistant to “open Reebok Sneaker Drop”, which would automatically enter them into the competition. On the day of the launch, 50 lucky winners were announced through the voice channels. 

This specific campaign showed that as the popularity of the drop model starts to lose steam, voice tech could help reignite its spark. This approach is also particularly effective with the younger generation who is not only tech-savvy, but constantly looking to be challenged in order to land exclusive products.

Setting the tone
Mastercard’s sonic branding

Marketers often talk about fighting to get through the noise, but now brands are literally fighting to get their voices heard. In the near future, owning a clear brand voice, which aligns to its overall identity and DNA, is going to be an important tool to have under the belt. 

As voice tech gets more sophisticated, we’re seeing that brands will start to move away from the generic ‘Alexa’ or ‘Cortana’ voices, into recognizable accents that differentiate the brand from competitors. Developing the correct tone of voice will be key to building brand loyalty, as 72% of consumers believe brands should have a unique voice and personality.

Mastercard has been experimenting with sound architecture by creating its own sonic brand identity which is simple, memorable and adaptable. The distinct melody is played at every touchpoint of the consumer journey, with the intention of helping reinforce the brand’s values and build deeper connections with its customers. This indicates that although brands have long relied on having a purely visual identity, in the future, they are going to have to adapt to an environment that is increasingly audio-friendly (and often screenless).

Enhancing the in-store experience
H&M’s voice activated mirror

68% of consumers say voice assistants free them to multitask and accomplish tasks hands-free in the home, but how could that translate in-store? For example in a fitting room, a voice assistant could make product recommendations, check for other sizes, or even offer styling tips.

Last year, H&M tested the use of voice-activated mirror at its NYC flagship, which allowed users to access style advice, discounts and even take selfies. The mirror gained a lot of traction, with 150 interactions per day, while 85% of people who did so, scanned an additional QR code to receive a discount. The mirror was implemented as a standalone feature, but in the future, this technology could potentially move into changing rooms, allowing people to experience it privately (and therefore lowering the barrier to entry.)

In 2016, Gartner predicted that by next year 30% of web browsing would be screenless. Brands and retailers must therefore keep up with the pace of change, or risk being excluded from this emerging behavior that is increasingly leaning towards audio.

How are you thinking about new technology? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Each of the rules referenced above is matched by one of our products and services. Interested in how? Get in touch to learn more.

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Editor's pick Podcast technology

Amazon Alexa’s founder on how voice tech will impact retail

William Tunstall-Pedoe

“The vision is that everything will respond when you talk to it; you’ll be surprised when it doesn’t reply,” said William Tunstall-Pedoe, the creator of Amazon Alexa, at a recent event hosted by FashMash in London.

The UK-based inventor and entrepreneur, whose startup Evi was acquired by Amazon in 2012, was talking about the expectation he has for voice technology, or what’s being increasingly referred to as the “zero interface”, down the line.

Right now, the technology is incredibly nascent, but its application in the future is only going to increase, he argued: “AI and voice tech have the potential to overtake humans, but I couldn’t predict when. An effective virtual sales assistant, for example, would be transformative, but the detail is lacking right now.”

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Tunstall-Pedoe, who recorded a podcast for TheCurrent Innovators that has just been re-released from earlier this year, particularly sees this as the case when talking about retail. Today, he suggests voice technology is only applicable to shopping at a very basic level – for groceries, for instance, or for replenishment of households goods like detergent or toilet roll.

In fact, only about 100,000 people have reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once thus far, according to a report from The Information. But, voice commerce sales did reach $1.8 billion in 2017, and they’re predicted to hit $40 billion by 2022, a study from OC&C Strategy Consultants shows.

A more intelligent system is needed to make that a reality, Tunstall-Pedoe suggests. “What we really want is a kind of superhuman sales assistant that you can have a conversation with – an AI that would be showing you product, answering questions and taking into account your circumstances to sell you something. It has the potential of basically what a really good sales person would do.”

“It shouldn’t be that surprising that people are not doing that much shopping of new products just with voice assistants right now, they want to see it and touch it. We are very very early right now; we are only nibbling at the edges of buying things… Once you can create a sales assistant at scale, then that would be transformative. But for very personalized experiences, that is not possible just yet.”

What he does suggest for today, is that retailers and brands remain focused on making the best products possible, and learning to describe and categorize them as tightly as they can. With consumers demanding more personal and relevant interactions, it’s only going to become more necessary to feed the machines (as such) with the right information in the first place, he comments.

After all, the superhuman assistants of the future may well be about surfacing the best product for their humans in question, but that’s only the case if they know about them in the first place.

Having departed Amazon in 2016, and since been working with a multitude of startups around the globe, many of them focused on all different areas under the artificial intelligence header, Tunstall-Pedoe is bullish on this direction of travel. “There is a lot of technology in the future, that hasn’t been invented yet, that is going to make this better. It’s a very exciting time and it’s only just beginning.”

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more. 

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Editor's pick Retail technology

ASOS launches voice-enabled shopping guide via Google Assistant 

ASOS

ASOS has introduced a Google Assistant experience that gives shoppers the ability to discover new styles using voice technology.

The initiative is an extension of the “Fashionbot” the e-commerce company launched on Facebook Messenger earlier this year, but this time taps into the burgeoning voice interface, which is expected to be worth $40 billion by 2022 in terms of shopping, according to OC&C Strategy Consultants.

Enki, as the ASOS shopping guide is called, gives users access to designs across six of the website’s top womenswear and menswear categories, making them then viewable on smartphones for full exploration and purchase.

All the user has to do to initiate the conversation is say “HeyGoogle, Talk To ASOS” to their Google Home smart speaker or Google Assistant app on Android or iOS. The aim is to help consumers in the US and UK edit down the vast array of products ASOS has available.

Jason Gregory, senior product manager at the company, said: “With 85,000 products on site at any one time, and on average 5,000 new items added each week, it’s more important than ever to make it easy for our customers to stay on top of what’s new on ASOS. With the launch of Enki on Facebook Messenger and now Google Assistant, we’re exploring ways that conversational commerce can help us make the ASOS shopping experience as easy and intuitive as possible.”

On Facebook Messenger, Enki also includes features such as Your Edit, a weekly drop of curated items; Style Match, which enables customers to search using images from the web or captured on their smartphone; and You Might Also Like, which recommends other styles. All are built on machine learning.

This is the first time ASOS has stepped into the voice tech space. Others brands from fashion and beauty, including Perry Ellis and Estée Lauder, have experimented with it ahead of them.

ASOS says it will be using customer feedback from the initial launch to explore ways to refine and enhance the experience over the coming months.

How are you thinking about innovation? We’re all about helping you build innovative integrations and experiences. TheCurrent is a consultancy transforming how fashion, beauty and consumer retail brands intersect with technology, powered by a network of top startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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Editor's pick product technology

Ministry of Supply introduces AI-enabled heated jacket

Ministry of Supply's intelligent heated jacket
Ministry of Supply’s intelligent heated jacket

US performance label Ministry of Supply has launched an intelligent heated jacket that uses machine learning to adjust the garment’s temperature.

The Mercury jacket creates a microclimate optimized to the wearer’s body by using a custom microcontroller heating system to heat up carbon-fiber heating pads sewn in the garment’s lining. The system takes in to consideration the weather and body temperature, motion data, and user preference to modulate power. For example, when walking to a train stop the jacket senses temperatures and an elevating heart rate, as well as user behaviour learnt through time, to regulate the system.

The machine learning element ensures that the more feedback the user gives its accompanying app, the better the system gets at learning their preferences. Meanwhile an added voice element allows wearers to naturally activate the jacket through a smart assistant like Amazon Alexa.

Ministry of Supply's Mercury Jacket
Ministry of Supply’s Mercury Jacket

“Our mission is to invent clothing that blends form and functionality — and temperature regulation is one of the most important factors in comfort,” says the brand’s team. “We’re excited to present our vision of what wearable technology can become, not just a way to monitor our vitals – but also act on it allowing us to become more comfortable and capable because of it. The Intelligent Heated Jacket is just that literally putting a learning thermostat in your jacket.”

Since Ministry of Supply’s inception, it has approached clothing through a human-centric, design-led methodology that takes into consideration both aesthetic and function. The jacket has been developed to replace any other outerwear alternative.

The jacket’s production is being crowdfunded via a campaign on Kickstarter. Since its launch yesterday (February 21) the jacket has trebled its original donations goal, to reach over $150K in pledges.

This is Ministry of Supply’s third successful Kickstarter campaign. In 2012, it launched the Apollo shirt, which controls body temperature after raising over $400K. Following that, the Atlas socks, which are made out of coffee beans that filter out sweat, raised over $200K or its $30K goal.