By Karen Scates

Jan 30, 2020

9 Brands Leading the Way With Custom Voice Assistants

By Karen Scates

As part of our series on “Overcoming the Top 3 Challenges of Voice AI Adoption,” we wanted to highlight a few of the companies that have successfully implemented a voice assistant into their products, services, or mobile apps. These early adopters are paving the way for other companies to move forward with voice-first initiatives.

Although voice assistants are not new, the reality of a custom voice solution for brands is still in its nascent stage for many companies. Each of the brands highlighted here can be considered a pathfinder that has had to overcome numerous challenges as pioneers in a space that is rapidly growing and developing.

As part of their commitment to implementing a voice assistant, they’ve also committed to continually iterating over time. While addressing challenges along the way, these teams have been emboldened by the direct impact voice assistants have had on customer engagement and loyalty. Let’s take a look at nine of these success stories:

1. Mercedes-Benz

The Mercedes-Benz MBUX infotainment system is leading the automotive market as the gold standard in intelligent interactive voice interfaces. Beginning with their A-class model, Mercedes has given drivers control over in-car functions, such as window control, internal cabin temperature, lighting, and more. In addition, the voice assistant provides hands-free access to navigation, phone calls, and text messaging, as well as local business information and stock market updates.

According to MotorTrend, MBUX is one of the best infotainment systems on the market — highlighting the MBUX’s sassy personality and human-like understanding in a recent report.

“You: Hey Mercedes, what do you think of BMW?

Car: The same as you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting here.

MBUX’s sassy personal assistant function is a lesson in how to do voice commands properly. Taking learnings from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, MBUX doesn’t require you to say a specific phrase to get it to do what you want. Need the climate controls dialed down? Just say, “Hey Mercedes, I’m cold” and the system will immediately adjust the temperature.”

2. Starbucks

Following up on their voice ordering pilot in the U.S. in 2017, Starbucks’ more recent partnership with Alibaba in China may be a sign of things to come. Along with other brands, Starbucks’ voice ordering is available on Alibaba’s food delivery platform.

As part of the partnership, Alibaba has created a Starbucks branded speaker complete with the signature “Bearista” on top. Users with a Tmall Genie speaker can place an order with a nearby Starbucks and have coffee and food delivered to their location. They can also use the smart speaker for other things like web searches, music streaming, home-control automation devices, and placing orders for products from Tmall.

Creating a personal experience that includes the ability to stream Starbuck’s background music through the speaker shows how this food and beverage company is taking steps to meet the public’s demand for convenience and personalization.

Starbucks is also targeting their brand loyalists through the voice assistant. Rewards members earn points and receive membership updates and benefits. In the future, Starbucks may provide personalized recommendations for orders based on past user experience.

3. Bank of America

Bank of America’s voice assistant, Erica, available via their mobile app, is a great example of how the financial services industry is using voice to provide a greater level of service than previously available through traditional call centers and customer support teams.

Between its inception in June 2018 and May 2019, according to Business Wire, Erica had completed over 50 million client requests, engaged with more than 500,000 new users per month, doubled the ways in which clients can ask financial questions through the ongoing expansion of conversational knowledge, and provided assistant for clients in all the generations over the age of seven.

In a recent Financial Brand article, Jim Marous, owner and publisher of the Digital Banking Report and co-publisher of The Financial Brand, noted the importance of staying ahead of the competition in a rapidly developing voice interface market.

Marous acknowledges that “BofA has definitely proven the viability of a virtual assistant platform. In addition, what the bank has learned about conversational banking gives it a lead. Other organizations definitely have some catching up to do.”

4. Hyundai

Hyundai is taking voice AI to the next level by designing an “intelligent personal agent” to proactively predict drivers’ needs and provide useful information. The Hyundai Venue SUV enables drivers to speak queries and control various aspects of the car simply by pushing a button on the steering wheel and talking using their natural voices. The Venue launched with support for understanding English, specifically Indian-English accents, and plans to add additional languages across the Indian region in the future.

Voice is integrated into the Venue through the automotive company’s BlueLink Connected Car platform. Drivers are able to use their voices to search in real-time for points of interests; ask about the weather, date, and time; make a phone call; and control the car’s media, navigation, and more.

In a post by

Hyundai India is calling the Venue, available in five variants, the “future of connected mobility.” Drivers push a button on the steering wheel to activate voice recognition which pairs with select Android & Apple smartphones. The Houndify-powered SUV understands English and Indian-English accents so that Indian drivers can speak in their natural voices.

5. Pandora

Pandora enhanced its music streaming experience with Voice Mode, launched in 2019. Using the wake phrase, “Hey Pandora,” users can play, pause, or skip any song, find podcasts, control the volume, and much more. Pandora’s voice assistant gives listeners the fastest, easiest, and most accurate way to play music and podcasts compared to any voice-enabled streaming service or smart speaker.

With Voice Mode, listeners can make requests without having to learn a specific syntax, and can ask open ended questions such as, “Play me something for relaxing,” or “Play me something different.” Users can also discover the name of the song or artist and add songs to their playlists in hands-free mode—an added convenience for those who are driving or otherwise occupied during a listening session.

According to Engadget, “While you may have used Pandora voice controls on smart products like Amazon Alexa or Google Home, the new feature takes voice commands to the next level. It’s meant to be more like a personal assistant for music, and it promises to deliver music selections tailored to each individual user.

6. BBC

In August 2019, the BBC announced that they would be launching a digital voice assistant in 2020. It will not be a hardware device but is being designed to work on all smart speakers, TVs and mobile phones and devices.

BBC is breaking new ground with this voice interface that is not dependent on Amazon, Google, or any other large brand voice assistant. As a rationale for developing their own voice assistant, BBC talked about the need to control the user experience without restrictions imposed by Amazon or Google.

BBC also recognizes that voice partner companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google are moving into the media space and are future competitors for the same audience. Taking the steps now to create a custom, wholly-owned voice assistant positions BBC to be more competitive in the future.

In response to skeptics who argue that individual brands cannot compete with established voice assistants, had this to say:

The mistake many people make is to assume that all voice assistants must be similar to Alexa. Certain brands and user contexts are well-suited to introducing a voice assistant with fewer capabilities that are optimized for a particular task or interest. ‘Beeb’ doesn’t need to compete with Alexa and Siri to succeed. It just needs to add value for consumers.

7. Kia

The Indian market is adopting voice interfaces at a rapid rate. To satisfy the demand for hands-free experiences, greater connectivity, and more in-car convenience, Kia launched a custom voice assistant, UVO for their Seltos Smart SUVs in India. Built with the unique safety needs of drivers in mind, the Kia Seltos unveiled its UVO connected car in August 2019.

Drivers of the Kia Seltos in India get hands-free control over navigation, safety and security, and vehicle management as part of the standard package. Express Drives recently reviewed the functionality and customer experience delivered through Kia’s voice interface in this video. The reviewer noted that the voice assistant “worked really well” and demonstrated navigation and cabin environment control.

8. Nike

Nike has always been a leader in the marketing space. Recently, they integrated voice into their products and doubled down on their marketing efforts to promote this unique experience for their customers. In one of the most innovative use cases to date, Nike included a voice interface for its Adapt Huarache sneakers. Using a mobile device, sneaker wearers can command these shoes to loosen or tighten the laces on demand — no longer needing to stop what they are doing to adjust their laces. The FitAdapt lacing system can be accessed through voice commands on a smartphone or smart watch and is an example of a creative and useful adaptation of voice tech.

When the first voice-activated shoe was announced in 2017 by Nike, consumers were given the opportunity to order a pair through a smart speaker at home during the airing of its first commercial announcing the product. The marketing effort resulted in Nike selling out of the shoes in six minutes. A testimony to the power of a synchronized voice-first strategy.

9. MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises has focused on one of the key best practices of designing a voice assistant. They focused on getting the basics right first. The cruise line scoured its ships’ reception desk logs to uncover 800 of the most common questions. Then, with the help of Harman and Samsung, the cruise line designed a voice assistant that helps passengers address commonly asked questions, discover excursions and other information relevant to their travels.

Keeping their diverse customer base in mind, they integrated Zoe with seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Brazilian, Portuguese, and Mandarin. They also added the ability to understand a range of different accents within each language.

According to an op ed in Riviera Maritime Media, “MSC Cruises is one step ahead of other cruise operators with the launch of first-of-its-kind digital cabin assistant Zoe. This technology represents a turning point for the industry, with other companies bound to follow suit.” The article goes on to state, “MSC Cruises will benefit as pressure on the cruise ship guest service desk will be eased and passenger communications with crew will improve as this will take place to create added value.

If you’re hoping to join the industry leaders featured in this blog with a custom branded voice assistant, you can find practical tips and expert advice for getting buy-in and making sure your voice strategy is successful. Our recent in-depth guide will help you address the most common challenges.

In addition, we also have several blogs to take deeper dives into many of the best practices. Here are a few to get you started:

The Mission to Find Your Brand’s Voice
The Richness of User Data: Guiding Principles for Voice User Research
Make Your Voice Assistant Discoverable and Increase Adoption
The Impact of Voice Assistants on Customer Loyalty

Author’s Note: This article is an overview of several prominent brands who have successfully implemented voice assistants. SoundHound Inc. was not involved in the development of all of these voice assistants or all their capabilities

Karen Scates is a storyteller with a passion for helping others through content. Argentine tango, good books and great wine round out Karen’s interests.

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