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How Petco Is Using Voice Activation To Connect With Pet Owners

Petco recognized that if it recognized as the best source of pet information and finding pet products intelligently on Alexa and the Google Assistant, that is a strategic opportunity to take advantage of, says Petco partner Alpine.AI's Adam Marchick.

At the end of July, pet store chain Petco went live with its voice-activated programming with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. The company had two goals: connect pet owners with its its care center, PetCoach, and then, build interest in retail items at its stores.

The rollout came just as Petco was rolling out its first brick-and-mortar outlet for PetCoach, a digital services that provides pet owners with personalized advice from veterinarians. Petco acquired the PetCoach brand in April 2017.

Petco tapped voice-activation software services platform Alpine.AI to develop  PetCoach Google Assistant “actions” and Amazon Alexa “skills” that would allow those smart devices users the ability to get instant information about petcare by saying “Hey Google, talk to PetCoach…” or “Alexa, ask PetCoach…”

“Voice is making consumer access to information much easier in every area, including our pets,” said Brock Weatherup, EVP Strategic Innovation and Digital for Petco. “By partnering with Alpine, Petco and PetCoach are leading the way for the many pet health and wellness questions that pet parents ask us, and Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, every day.”

In a conversation with Adam Marchick, CEO of Alpine, which has over 3,700 conversational applications for brands within Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, Petco’s use of voice activation can point the way for other brands. In particular, instead of looking at voice as a channel to try to sell things, the benefit comes first by establishing a new ways of customer engagement and experience.

By proving that a brand is a trusted source of personalized and immediate information, the sales relationship can quickly develop from there, Marchicks says.

GeoMarketing: What is Alpine.AI?

Adam Marchick: Alpine.AI is focused on helping brands and retailers unlock a new digital channel: voice-activated digital assistants. Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant have gone from being on 2 million devices two-and-a-half years ago over a billion devices by the end of this year. We help brands and retailers be present, be effective, be found and help both existing and new customers.

Both my co-founder and I have focused on emerging platforms and markets for the last 15 years. Around two-and-a-half years ago, my co-founder came to me and said, “Hey, have you seen this Echo thing?” I said no. We started digging in and really saw just how transformative an always-on, always-available computer was in the home. From there, we sought to understand voice-activated assistants better and see where we could be helpful to brands.

What were the first steps?

We started by creating a product called Voice Labs, which involved analytics for Alexa skills and Assistant apps. We actually became the number one analytics provider for these apps and had over 3,700 on our platform. Because of this, we saw how people were interacting with the Echo and Google Home at scale.

Initially, we witnessed that ambient sounds, meditation, daily briefings and games started to be more and more used as consumers went beyond Spotify and setting timers. We both saw the evolution and we also saw an issue that when people were building apps in a decision tree, static way, it led to poor consumer experiences. Consumers were able to break the apps very easily.

How did you address the ideas around consumer experience and the ability to “break” apps?

Let’s take a recipe finder. There are too many steps. It’ll ask whether you want something for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Press one. Do you want chicken or meat? Press two. Five minutes later, it might get a good answer, but you’ll never know because the consumer has left by that point.

Instead, a consumer wants to say, “I’ve have two screaming boys and I need a meatball dish.” The voice assistant should respond with “I gotcha, here’s my top recommendation.” This elegant response takes deeper, natural language understanding to execute.

Another example is many times the voice assistant won’t understand you until you ask a question in a specific way. Consumers want to ask questions in a variety of ways, and you need NLU to handle this. Alpine goes beyond what Amazon or Google are doing in terms of developing those Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities.

To be clear, Google and Amazon are doing a great job of NLP in terms of speech-to-text and resolving that text. They do a decent job of getting a high level understanding of what the user means. We’re going on top and building sophisticated natural language understanding for Petco, in terms of making sure Alexa and Google understand the brand, key products and key lexicons that users might ask for.

How should a brand like Petco approach voice activation? Is this something they need now in a way that’s meaningful to the business? Or is it a matter of just being prepared for when the use of voice activation becomes completely mainstream?

It’s fascinating, actually. If you look at the way brands and retail are going, there is a ton of urgency to figure this out. The reason is that Amazon is becoming more and more important to consumers. We’ve seen Amazon roll out private label products that are competing with a lot of established brands. What does a brand do about that? It’s very obvious that Alexa is going to be a core part of the Amazon experience.

So brands feel tremendous urgency to do something. The do what, they’re not sure. Do I just tag my website with snippets? Do I try and strike a business development deal with Amazon? Or do I innovate and lead in the Alexa ecosystem? What are the right steps I should take?

For Petco, they recognized that if Petco is the best source of pet information and finding pet products intelligently on Alexa and the Google Assistant, that is a strategic opportunity to take advantage of.

Online-to-offline: Inside Petco’s PetCoach Nutrition Center

When it comes to becoming the “best source of information” in a business’s marketing category, is that a question about content strategy even more than advertising and media planning?

You nailed it. It’s one of those things where it’s very tied to content plus commerce. Every company today needs to ask itself: What do we want to be known for?

Take Warby Parker, for example. They sell glasses. It’s really easy to say “Warby sells glasses.” But I believe Warby wants to be known as a trusted source to find eyeglasses and glasswear what is well-priced and is stylish.

Levi’s is another good example. Whenever you have a denim question, Levi’s wants you to ask Levi’s. Levi’s has a ton of content on what type of denim’s is right for you, how to turn jeans into cut offs. Once again, what does your brand want to be known for? That’s what you start with. That’s the content, then you tie commerce into it.

Like all fashion brands, Levi’s and Warby Parker are inherently visual in terms of their marketing. Do you see the value and limitations of voice in terms of reducing limitations for brands?

There’s a major evolution that’s been happening since we’ve been in this market. When we started, there was only one product: the Amazon Echo. Then Google Assistant came out. Then we started to see Google Assistant be on both Google Home and Android phones. We’re now at the point where across our customers, if you look at the number of Google Assistant sessions, the majority of them are happening on the phone.

That’s voice plus screen. Whenever we work with a customer, the first thing we build is the Google Assistant voice plus screen interface.

When you’re on your phone, you can type, but part of the beauty of voice is it’s faster. So voice plus screen sure feels like it will be the dominant interface in a year.

How did you start working with Petco and how did the idea of PetCoach develop?

I really give a lot of credit to Petco’s SVP of Innovation, Brock Weatherup. When I was introduced to him and discussed what Alpine.AI is about, he was immediately interested, and said, “Let’s figure this out and get started.”

PetCoach is our first initiative with Petco. We actually have multiple initiatives. It’s because we approached it from: What does Petco want be known for? What how can initial projects evolve?

It was well timed in that Petco just announced its first PetCoach store. It’s a physical store where you come in and there are veterinarians and staff there to help you better care for and better provide for your loved furry friend.

So PetCoach is much more about service than retail. They actually have relatively few products at PetCoach locations.

So Petco has always cared about products and service. In fact, when I asked my future father-in-law about Petco, he knows them because “they’re amazing at the dog grooming and I go there to wash my dog and also get the vet check up.” He added, “And I also leave with $200 worth of pet goods and toys.”

Petco has really innovated around vet services and other services in addition to products, so we’ve been able to showcase that with voice with Actions on Google Assistant and skills on Amazon Alexa.

How much do consumers need to be educated that these voice services are available to pet owners?

This is where, once again, an area where we help. Discovery is the number one code to crack. Right now it really matters how a brand works with Google and Amazon to promote a high quality skill.

Also, there’s a new discipline called voice assistant SEO, which addresses the issue of discovery.

For example, if it’s Google Assistant, you can ask, “Can my dog eat cherries?” It recommends PetCoach because of this new SEO discipline that we’ve built product to ensure that the brand’s content can be better found. Apart from that, Petco’s proud of their app and they promote it through all channels.

How do you expect the voice space to evolve over the next year – and how does Alpine.AI plan to evolve with it?

Part of our plan is to expand capabilities. I want do voice commerce in the home and in the store. I do think that every brand and retailer will need to decide how to play in this digital channel with a billion devices. The decisions that they make today will have ramifications for the next 10 years.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.