While the concept of a brand having a “voice” is not a terribly new idea, before this month it was more metaphorical and mostly a synonym for “style.” But the concept of brand voice took a turn for the literal this month with Amazon’s latest rollout from Amazon Polly — an AWS product that heretofore supplied neural network-based text-to-speech services that allowed businesses to add realistic voices to their applications.
As of a few weeks ago, however, Amazon announced that Polly is now taking its offering up a level, and allowing brands the opportunity to customize text-to-speech voices for their Alexa skills. So someday, when it comes time to order KFC via an Alexa device, the consumer will actually get to talk to the Colonel — or at least the synthetic voice designed for him.
And that example, by the way, isn’t fictional or a joke. KFC is an early adopter of the tech — and the Colonel’s voice has already been built. You can listen to it here.
“We are excited to be one of the first brands to adopt the Amazon Polly enhanced text-to-speech voice technology to create a seamless and distinctively KFC re-ordering experience for our fans,” said Jason Cassidy, marketing director, KFC Canada. “The Colonel was passionate about his fried chicken and this new skill makes re-ordering your favorite KFC menu items easier than ever but in a fun and memorable way.”
And while fun and memorable is likely the goal for just about any brand, the product itself isn’t designed for brands that have a memorable character like the Colonel. Australia’s National Australia Bank (NAB) is also early on board, though voice ordering wasn’t its primary concern. According to Laurent De Segur, general manager of digital and assisted channels, the opportunity from the bank’s perspective was within its call centers, and in streamlining and improving that experience. It is also, he noted, a data-gathering node as the bank continues to build its overall digital channel experience for its customers. Knowing how and when they most comfortably interact with that digital brand voice, De Segur notes, is critical data to have.
“We’re thrilled to be a global leader using this voice-first digital innovation — and even more excited to see how our customers interact with the voice and experience as we gradually roll this out,” De Segur said.
The latest edition from Amazon comes into the field with competition — albeit none as directly focused on customization or individualization of synthetic voice technology. Google recently announced 31 new artificial intelligence (AI)-synthesized WaveNet voices and 24 new standard voices in its Cloud Text-to-Speech, bringing its total to 57. Microsoft currently offers three AI-generated voices in preview and 75 standard voices via its Azure Speech Service API. On the other side of the spectrum, Polly competes with firms like Voicery, which provides customized human sounding digital voices; and iSpeech, a text-to-speech start-up that offers voice cloning technology similar to Amazon’s — as do a host of small and only narrowly known firms like Modulate, Respeecher, Resemble AI, Descript and DeepSync.
What Amazon brings to the table that none of its smaller customization competitors can match, however, is scale, not to mention thousands of inroads to firms via AWS. And while its biggest tech rivals have scale of their own to compete with, Amazon’s double down on text-to-speech customization for many is a unique addition to the arena.
The biggest question, and the one worth billions of dollars, is whether brand voices will be the boost voice-activated commerce needs. Consumers have, on the whole, quickly adopted and integrated voice-activated AI accessible from a host of devices very quickly. Not on the market until 2014, there are now 120 million of them in U.S. homes alone, and growing. In 2019, the rate of ownership went up 78 percent.
Commerce function on those devices has grown, and notable considering how new the devices still are to the market, but not that quickly. According to PYMTS third annual How We Will Pay Study, in with collaboration Visa, as of the end of 2019 a little under a third of consumer used their voice speakers to transact with. A lot of players, Amazon and Google chief among them, would like to see that share increase — and for voice to take its place as connected commerce’s killer app.
But to get there, they’ve got to bring more customers on board — and who knows? Perhaps a custom-designed friendly voice might just do the trick for some customers still holding back.