Brand Alexa takes local turn as the trusted aide focuses on vernaculars

Amazon’s campaigns for Alexa promote it as a device that plays to everyone’s tunes, one that is of use for the entire family
“Alexa, turn on the lights in the kitchen”

This may well go down as one of the most widely used phrases among many of Bengaluru’s upscale apartments that now come pre-loaded with a host of smart home automation features enabled by an Amazon Echo speaker. Today, you’d have to be willing to shell out upwards of Rs 3.5 million to buy one of those smart homes. Alternately, you could buy an echo smart speaker for as little as Rs 3,500, but that is just the first step in what could lead to an extremely expensive trip down technology lane for an average home in any city across the country. 

Because of this, Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, which powers all this technology is viewed as a premium brand by many—a tool for the affluent or for technology evangelists who are willing to dig deep into their wallets to possess one. Clearly this could limit the spread of Brand Alexa in the Indian market, but Amazon that has invested heavily in understanding the Indian customer is working out ways to take its brand beyond the ‘premium’ tag.

Catching them early

Amazon has taken a bullish stance on how a smart assistant like Alexa can change the face of online shopping, smart home connectivity and internet search in India.  

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In fact, tapping early adopters is part of the US giant’s strategy to build Alexa for the next wave of people who will be using the Internet in the next decade.

Puneesh Kumar, who heads Alexa Experiences and Devices at Amazon India, said that India was the fourth market where Amazon launched its Echo line of devices, ahead of many other markets where digital penetration and a customer’s propensity to purchase such a device might be higher.  The idea is simple—early adopters will train Alexa for the rest of India to find her useful.

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“Voice breaks through the literacy barrier, so that is the potential we want to tap. How well we execute that depends on how well we listen to customers. For us the current customers are not just an elite club of early adopters, they are the ones who will help shape Alexa,” Kumar added.

Language skills 

To unlock India’s digital potential, it is now nearly universally accepted, one has to speak in many tongues. So for Amazon to help Alexa move beyond understanding and replying to queries in English, it needs Indian customers to talk to it in other languages. The company has already trained Alexa to understand local dialects, pronunciations, and has begun training the system in detecting nouns in languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, etc.

The promise of Alexa in India is quite straightforward. The number of consumers in the country who haven’t yet bought something online is far greater than the number who have. While an app interface might work just great for the first 100 million or even 200 million, for the rest Alexa through a voice interface could work even better.

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For a company like Amazon which thrives on knowing its customers better through the data it gathers, Alexa is the Holy Grail. It also sets the stage for people to use Amazon’s affiliate services of video and music streaming, locking them into the Amazon ecosystem. While today the total number of devices powered by Alexa is still small, that is quickly changing.

Building a network

Three months into the introduction of the Echo speakers in India, Amazon saw that the number of times customers called upon Alexa was higher than in other parts of the world where the service was being offered. This imbues it with greater power and authority over the services it suggests. It also helps attract more brands and encourages them to associate with Alexa.

Already Internet enabled services such as ride hailing apps, online food ordering services and even banks are tapping into Alexa’s potential. But there’s still a long way to go for Amazon to make Alexa a household name, similar to what Google, WhatsApp and Facebook have become in the country. Amazon’s plans for Alexa in India include plans to get people to shop using their voice, play music, control appliances, etc.

“There’s a lot of buzz around voice search right now and once this settles, even this space will need a big brand. At this point of time, Alexa is still not that brand because it fundamentally needs a device and that device is considered expensive. It will take some time for Alexa to become device neutral and when that happens it has a chance to become a ubiquitous brand,” says Harish Bijoor, CEO of Bijoor Consults.

While Amazon certainly has a headstart in this space, rivals Google, Apple and even Samsung are quickly trying to catch up. Google has already launched its Google Home range of devices in India and has the added advantage of already being present on over 95 per cent of smartphones in use in the country. The form factors of digital assistants might change beyond the smart speaker, but the trick is in being present everywhere.

Amazon is already working on this, but it’s still early days. And it needs to be seen how fast the technology can evolve. For now, Alexa, Google Assistant and even Apple’s Siri are learning at a breakneck pace, but for them to truly become useful in becoming the next big machine interface for humans, they need to really think out of the box and come up with relevant solutions, say experts.

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