Part III: The Dawn of Brand-Owned Virtual Assistants
The Rising Wave of OVAs in the Market
You may have started to notice that OVAs have emerged all around you, especially within verticals like finance, insurance, transportation, entertainment. Introduced to satisfy a host of assistive conversational moments, OVAs are showing up in phones, cars, drive-throughs, even home entertainment systems.
In personal finance, OVAs are paving the way with disruption through differentiated banking services. Some of the more widely known virtual assistants, Bank of America’s Erica, Capital One’s Eno, or Ally Assist from Ally Bank illuminate that major US banks are shifting to a conversational mode of assistance. This is unsurprising given the sensitivity of the data in question. Soon, we believe this posture will shape the next wave of customer experience for all levels of financial management and banking. And COVID has already shown spikes of adoptions.
So, taking into account what we know from reading thus far – what makes these solutions “owned”? The assistance is happening in highly accessible areas with owned ecosystems, principally, mobile banking apps. In some instances, these assistants are also integrated into Alexa (such as Capital One’s skill), or through SMS messaging, to proactively communicate to a customer when they are not actively in a banking experience. App, SMS, Alexa. These are all modes of expression that support the same independent brain of the conversational customer experience.
But it’s not just major banks developing the technology and infrastructure for owned capabilities, it’s also a heavily invested ventures and start up sector where we see out of the box integration solutions for retail banking, business banking, and investment management.
With VC-backed cognitive services like Kasisto, Clinc, and Unblu – to name just a few – it’s clear that the scale of owned financial assistance through conversational interfaces has only just begun.
Healthcare is another area of owned assistance that we believe will see scale in a short order. Healthcare is both amongst the most exciting industries for voice use cases, but also the most sluggish in the ability to realize that potential, due to obvious regulatory and privacy considerations. It’s also a highly fragmented market that has created siloed pockets of innovation which may only extend as far as a given company or network. Hospital networks and specialized practices may operate with different technologies, but even so, we’re seeing the healthcare space littered with solutions that are purpose-built for healthcare applications, rather than trying to shoe-horn MVAs into specialized functions.
One example is Robin Healthcare, which devised its own hardware and HIPAA-compliant, military-grade security encryption to be deployed in doctors offices. Its goal is to maximize a doctor’s daily efficiency by cutting down on administrative tasks that can burden even the most seasoned and professionally run practices. Robin works by ambiently observing patient appointments (with consent) to produce clinical notes and submit claims. This proactive layer of a physician’s practice, taking action from ambient voice recognition, is a strong OVA response to a long-standing operational challenge. Similarly, Suki is an assistant that allows out-of-the-box integrations with Electronic Health Records to take the work out of note-taking.
Entertainment is a loose “vertical” label for identifying a range of companies, but within the space of media consumption, whether for informational or leisurely pursuits, we’re seeing owned voice assistants emerge here too. Three very different applications help to illustrate the value and potential of OVAs in media.
Beeb, launched in 2020 by the BBC, is an example of an OVA that was born out of a small scale “resistance” to the duopoly created by Alexa and Google Assistant for 3rd-party voice-app development, and is the first ever “public service voice assistant.” The BBC’s resistance stance is that it simply wants more control over it’s customer experience and voice-data than if they were to cede that to Alexa or Google Assistant. In the newly-established and ultra-valuable chain of data that comes from voice-enabled audio streaming, Beeb will allow the BBC to take ownership through an OVA instead of renting space and missing out on valuable data that will shape their broadcasting evolution in the age of voice.
Muncie is a currently-under-the-radar OVA from the National Football League that could shape the dynamic of league reporting and access to information over the seasons to come. Muncie, named as an homage to a professional football team that predated modern American Football, is an NFL owned mobile app that creates an interactive news consumption experience. Fans are able to browse through curated news playlists, and can then ask for the curated stories to play. Within each story, fans can ask questions about topics that may be relevant, and Muncie can produce an added layer of depth to the news stories that day. As Muncie could scale its intelligence and integration into the NFL ecosystem, this type of interactivity could be built into box scores, live telecasts, player interviews, team sites & apps, and more. With a rented experience provided solely by an MVA, the flexibility to scale this intelligence into key NFL channels could prove to be too costly or limiting in scale.
Xfinity from Comcast has been leveraging voice in its home entertainment systems for several years now. To enable Voice, a customer simply presses & holds a button on the remote, unlocking an impressive amount of capability. From the simplest voice commands to turn a channel or perform detailed programming searches, to voting on TV shows such as “The Voice,” and even finding your cell phone, Comcast has leveraged its owned capabilities built directly into its hardware to maximize the brand’s relevance to your TV watching experience. As a strategic endeavor, Comcast is changing TV viewing, which is historically passive (though more active than ever in the age of mobile), and accumulating valuable data assets about behaviors while watching live programming; data like frequency of channel switching, or mobile phone proximity, all by introducing a voice mechanism. By putting the TV viewer on offense, Comcast and its current & future partners are all beneficiaries of having richer data from their constituents to develop more well-rounded insights that will shape future programming capability and operational improvements.
Voice assistants in cars are becoming expected passengers along for every ride. Mercedes, Honda, Groupe PSA, and Hyundai have all tapped Soundhound’s Houndify to create in-car personal assistants. Audi is creating its own assistant with Cerence, a company that rolled out its own platform to create custom voice assistants for cars.
Compared to other sectors, the automobile is a unique environment for voice, where the abundance of potential use cases borders on MVA territory. There are many things one might imagine wanting to do in the car (as we’ve written about before), from ordering food ahead of arrival to seamlessly paying for gas. The dilemma facing original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the industry is whether to build their own voice assistants (as Houndify and Cerence’s partners are doing), using their own wake words, experiences, data, or to revert to familiar, generalist voice assistants from tech companies (i.e., natively embedding Alexa as Buick has done). There are tradeoffs to each approach in terms of branded control vs. delivering familiarity and out-of-the-box functionality to existing MVA customers.
As OEMs consider their strategies, they’ll be wise to also think about the relationship that their OVA might have to other OVAs.
For example, if one wanted to access BBC content through their Peugeot, there may become a need for more strategic systems integrations as assistant-to-assistant handoff becomes more frequent, or even the development of new robust marketplaces for third parties – like skills and actions today – making them a new breed of MVA beyond big tech.
QSR (Quick Service Restaurant)
Lastly, the QSR (quick service restaurant) industry is seeing a rise in the use of voice assistants, especially in drive-thru kiosks. McDonald’s started testing voice-activated drive-thrus in suburban Chicago in June 2019. In June 2020, in the midst of COVID they installed a voice-enabled exterior ordering feature in Madrid. With its purchase of Apprente, a startup specializing in conversational ordering, the chain has doubled down on voice ordering to advance the drive-thru experience.
Big fast food chains aren’t the only restaurants with their eyes on voice—Denver-based Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custards is using “Holly,” a virtual assistant at the drive-thru created by Valyant AI, to take customers’ orders.
These assistants represent the tip of the iceberg. Dom from Dominos. Lemonade Insurance. Hey Pandora. Voice Scan by Snapchat. Across sectors, the growing list of OVAs are starting to assert their place as a long term business strategy for their creators.
Recall the drivers we noted previously within the context of these examples, and the strategic similarities behind these owned presences. What do we see?
- Resistance to “renting” promotes brand access in highly ownable moments in the customer experience (mobile apps, TV remotes, cars), nearly eliminating major discovery challenges that plague 3rd-party apps on MVAs.
- Domain expertise in finance has led to custom solutions that will scale the personal banking sector rapidly, with investment management to follow.
- Hyper specialization and domain expertise in healthcare gives physicians a bespoke option for more modern care and well rounded capabilities.
- New data capture paradigms. BBC, Muncie and Comcast – and really all the aforementioned OVAs – are producing new data-capture paradigms by introducing voice in historically passive consumption moments.
- Personified identity. Erica, Eno, Muncie, Beeb are all made in the likeness of their parent brands, but have their own personified identity. The personification of these assistants makes them more marketable as offshoots in their nascent stages, and more likely to grow into sustainable pillars of business as adoption grows.
The Bottom Line
Early adopters are beacons for other brands who are starting to read the tea leaves and look to assert more control over increasingly preferred and habitual communications modalities – voice and conversation. Given voice’s ability to reduce friction and create efficiencies, the presence or absence of this functionality – and the quality of it – will be a major factor weighing on consumers’ brand choice. OVAs can not only solve customer pain points, they can set a brand or business on a new paradigm of customer insight and service delivery.
Expect the accelerating rate of OVA creation we’ve seen over the last few years to continue in the years to come.