Time for brands to think about Virtual Personal Assistants

•September 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

As shown by Baidu’s virtual assistant announcement, tech giants are racing to humanize technology—but what are the implications for you?

Virtual Assistants can be said to operate at the intersection of knowledge databases and services and products that further enable personalization. With so much opportunity underlying this area from a service and product standpoint, it’s no wonder players like Apple, Facebook and Samsung are all working to crack this space. And the latest foray comes from China’s search giant Baidu as they announced the release of Duer, a voice-activated concierge service that will be installed on millions of smartphones across China.

The search app will handle requests like ordering food or getting advice on medical matters. The company is also boasting superior image recognition capabilities that will also be embedded into Baidu’s self-driving cars, which they’re making alongside BMW.

Some makers like Apple or Microsoft are taking a device approach (think Siri). Others, like Google and Microsoft, take a cloud approach, while others are taking a more programmatic approach (think Facebook’s M.)

The central mission for these developers is intuitive design that encourages conversation rather than swiping, clicking and typing. Facebook takes the approach of using a mixture of algorithms and human operators for their virtual assistant product, M. This is intended to give Facebook a leg up on how Apple, Microsoft and Google interpret demands, which is focused on automated responses to factual queries and simple commands. On the other hand, what Siri or Google Now do is not simple at all, because these platforms are meshing together a slew of apps to generate the best answer.

When we looked at Baidu’s Duer, it’s not clear which approach they are taking, but it is most likely to be the approach of other tech giants (which means it will either be based on cloud technology or device).

Assessing the Opportunity

The first step to adapting in a fast-moving world is always a sound business strategy. Virtual Assistants are just a small part of the shifting technological landscape but there are at least three key opportunities for brands in this realm:

Maximizing containment on a website
Increase sales through up-selling and cross-selling
Improve customer experience

If you’re still not taking these platforms into account, keep in mind that Virtual Assistants will be accessible by anyone with a mobile phone. Brands will need to adapt to the knowledge that voice-oriented platforms like Siri and S Voice because of the way they enhance way-finding and lessen friction in the consumer journey overall.

Today consumers are increasingly expecting their identity and history to be integrated into a variety of brand touch points. — that brands are expected to be knowledgeable on some level.

Data provides brands and technology companies with unprecedented chances to accomplish a more personalized experience for the consumer. Thus brands must continually respond to the technology industry’s advancements. A coherent business strategy makes it easier to ascertain the best way to approach disruptive and subtle technological advancements.

FMCG ecommerce – Not going anywhere!

•May 1, 2015 • 2 Comments


Look at India around you and you will see a land of extremes. The FMCG category in India is a replica of this, with products catering to each section of the Indian population layered very well with the SEC/LSM categorization we marketers do to target the right population who would buy these products. Years ago we saw the birth of mordern trade which gave a glimpse to all large and small FMCG players a potential that could be harnessed for the better. They were supposed to allow more control to the FMCG players and better inventory management along with organised profts and so on so forth. Well, years ahead from that point we can say that this potential is still not realised with only 9% of FMCG sales coming through this organised retail format. This is still an urban phenomenon and lacks the personalization of service that Indians crave about always.

The ecommerce story is not unfolding the very same way. A lot of effort, money and patience has been put here to unravel the potential and will be done so over the next few years. I believe that though this story will not fade away but there will be no scale to run this business in a profitable way. Look at the way the traditional business runs….it is very personal with the grocer knowing the buyer for months if not years. He lends a credit limit to him every month to retain him. Does home delivery over a call for even a small item like a thandai or a can of coke. They can even return the the products easily if they do not like it. The Indian buyer loves this personalization that ecommerce can never deliver. Also the economics does not work out. All buyers today look for deals and discounts which is kind of stereotype that ecommerce has been labelled these days. It has been driven by the flipkarts, bigbasket and snapdeals of the world which run these deals as customer acquisition tactics and will not fly in the long run. At this category is not where you can run this as price points are in tens of rupees and weights in gms. An I am not even getting into the delivery aspect of the business which is the achilles heel of Indian ecommerce ecosystem.

My take here is FMCG ecommerce whatever that is going to happen is going to take a pie out of modern retail and not change anything else within the ecosystem. It remains to be seen what will the flipkarts, bigbaskets and snapdeals of the world do about it as we move ahead. Will they keep pumping investor money down the drain to keep the consumers coming back with deals and discounts? Also interesing will be the strategies of large players like HUL, P&G, J&J, Godrej, etc. Will they see through this smokescreen and make the right investments going forward.

Let’s wait and watch….

Consumers first rather than mobile first

•March 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The buzzword in India or let’s say it across the world is mobile. While businesses hurriedly develop digital strategies and think mobile first, are they shifting the focus from the only thing that matters – customers?

We’re surrounded by some of the most exciting technology the world has ever seen; we’ve got contactless payments, robotic assistants, mobile ticketing, 3D printing and numerous other developments. It feels like whatever we need there is an app for it, and together it’s changing how we behave in profound ways.

But it all feels removed from what people actually want. We’ve a thousand companies trying to rush out wearable devices before Apple, enthusiasm undiminished by a total lack of consumer interest. It feels like the only things 3D printers can’t print is a reason to have one. Personal drones still seem like the product of an enthusiastic scientist who doesn’t get out much. I find virtual reality (VR) interesting, but real reality is pretty good too. For all the technology in the world we’ve very little empathy. We’ve businesses doing what it wants to do, rather than giving people what they need in their lives. I’m sure if electronics companies listened, they’d find people wanted better designed remote controls, better ways to discover content and menus that made sense, not a 4K curved and bendable screen.

Without exception, the companies that thrive in the current environment are those that focus entirely on what people want. They don’t obsess over technology, but find a way for it to solve people’s problems. They’ve arranged themselves not how they want to, but how it best serves customers. Uber isn’t a technology company. It’s a company that realised that the entire taxi industry was built around it’s needs and not what people wanted.

Amazon isn’t the cheapest way to buy most things, but they knew that removing barriers to the purchase process was the simple way to become the default way to order anything online. Apple’s success is primarily based on finding a way to create electronics that do roughly the same things as other products, but make using them feel great. It’s a simple recipe.

We’re living in disruptive times. We’ve an abundance of energy, money and focus on how technology can improve every aspect of a business, but it’s often still arranged around business needs. Technology should solve problems first. It’s a common problem. There are retailers across the world who must be armed with incredible insights about how people shop, why they buy, what the purchase funnel is, yet seem to hand over site development to teams who seemingly know nothing about retail. The end product is identical and effectively a content management system with nice photos, why hasn’t anyone made a e-commerce site a joy to use?

What if technology was used to solve problems first and create better products? Nowadays a good product is the best advertising, let’s bring technology and empathy together to surprise and delight our customers, not do things because they simply can be done.

New platforms for digital customer service – Trend

•March 3, 2015 • Leave a Comment


In the US, over 50 percent of companies currently provide customer service via social media, and we have already seen Places enabling customers to talk to any local business via text message. Moving customer relations online makes support teams more available and approachable, significantly cutting down on the stress and costs associated with call centres. Now, two new solutions from Germany and India are hoping to help the rest of the world’s businesses catch up — providing new platforms for digital customer service.

Haptik is a mobile messaging assistant from India which enables customers to receive real-time support and information for over 200 international companies, including American Express, BMW, British Airways and many more. Users begin by downloading the app to their smartphone or tablet. They then send a query to Haptik via the WhatsApp-style platform and an assistant will respond within six minutes. The platform’s experts — who specialize in specific areas such as wireless and telecom or food and delivery — offer a huge range of services from finding a mobile plan, to locating a nearby ATM, to troubleshooting a customer’s IT problem. Users simply browse the categories in the app to see if Haptik can help with their particular problem. As more companies come on board, potential services offered will continue to expand.

In Germany meanwhile, Hello.de offer a similar service using the pre-existing social messaging platform — WhatsApp — as well as social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. Businesses can outsource their customer services to Hello.de who will provide a gateway platform on WhatsApp where consumer problems and enquiries can be seen to by Hello.de’s e-commerce sales assistants. Additionally, their staff can respond to queries on Twitter and Facebook, managing the companies’ reputation and offering customers a more enjoyable alternative to lengthy, costly phone calls.

Are there other businesses that could make use of these services?

A surprise product which everyone is likely to fall in love

•November 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Today Amazon surprised me, introducing Echo, a talking, listening piece of electronic furniture. It’s like having the internet on your kitchen table, cracking jokes and settling bets, and it’s the most innovative device Amazon’s made in years.

The easiest way to describe Echo is by comparing it (her?) to its peers. It’s like Siri, but furniture. It’s like Cortana, except in your living room. It’s like the voice recognition speaker Aether, or any number of other voice-controlled devices you can put in your home, except it does more. And it’s made by Amazon. The genius of Echo is that it’s a more nimble, leaner version of a technology that’s been caged up inside of other devices for years. As Apple and Microsoft have struggled to engage consumers in the idea of voice recognition for your phone or your computer or your game console, Amazon snuck a device that puts essentially the same software front and center for no other purpose than to chat with you. Oh, and play you some tunes while it’s at it. And importantly, it’ll be cheap as hell for Amazon Prime members: Only $100, compared to a few hundred bucks (at least) for a phone or computer that grants you Siri or Cortana access. In that sense, there’s no other product on the market that can do what Echo does: Put dedicated, seemingly reliable, truly hands-free voice recognition in your home for a hundred bucks.

For Amazon’s hardware team, this is an important moment. Kindle’s new Voyage e-reader was awesome, but crazily expensive, and its other dependable e-reader options haven’t broken any molds. Meanwhile, all its other successes and failures have involved following in the footsteps of other companies: Fire phone was a flop. Fire TV was well-received but limited by its price, and Fire TV Stick has a powerful direct competitor in the form of Chromecast. With Echo, the hardware team has hit on a design paradigm that’s pretty much radical, and they’ve made it inexpensive and accessible for just about everyone.

If it sucks, Echo could easily become yet another product on a long, decades-old list of failed AI. If it works, it will be world wide web floating through your house, the internet made tangible and speakable and liveable. Either way, Amazon’s trying something brand new. And that’s an exciting change of pace.

First take on a food 3D printer

•October 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Everyone thinks today that 3D printing is going to revolutionize the world….and I could’nt agree more. As the internet democratized the creation of content, 3D printing is sure to democratize manufacturing of products. More so customized products which are absolutely tailored for you.

A startup Structure3D has just opened up a paste extruding machine that can be hooked up to any 3D printer, capable of spitting out Nutella, cookie dough and inedible materials like silicone.  The Discov3ry offers printing enthusiasts a simple, ingenious and affordable hardware add-on solution for printing a wide range of pastes. Now Makers can quickly and inexpensively experiment with easily sourced materials, like silicone, clay and cake frosting — allowing them to do more. You connect the box with the printer via a tube. Inside the box, a syringe sits upright and a disk slowly pushes up on it, causing it to squeeze material into the tube.

See the Disocov3ry in action:

There are also quite a few people who are trying to break this barrier of creating custom food through 3D printing. Earlier this year Barilla had teamed up with Dutch scientific research firm TNO to work on a custom 3D pasta printer, capable of printing 15-20 pieces of pasta every two minutes. The eventual idea would be for customers to head into a restaurant, possibly with their own pasta CAD files, and print them right at the table.

After its largest competitor, Hershey, teamed up with 3D Systems to develop 3D printed chocolate and non-chocolate products, Nestle has decided to up the 3D printing ante.  The company’s research division, the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS), is working on tools to analyze and measure the levels of a number of essential nutrients in a given person’s body.  Then, once they’ve tackled the analysis side of the equation, the company imagines using 3D food printing to create meals tailored to the nutritional needs of an individual.

As India’s 3D printing industry starts to grow at a rapid pace, a group of students at Manipal Institute of Technology took it upon themselves to use chocolate as their 3D printing medium. And the result is: the ChocoBot. While plenty of companies, like Nestle and Hershey, have explored 3D foodprinting, we’ve yet to see much of a tangible result. If these can produce an inexpensive chocolate 3D printer for consumers, it may spur more serious entries in the market.

Recently I came across a very good TED talk by Avi Reichental on the future of 3D printing. He talks about how this technology could give way to hyperlocal manufacturing by the new generation making custom fabrication and manufacturing available to all.

Watch his talk here:

What do you think of this trend?

Taking a Selfie : Innovation through wearables

•September 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Meet Nixie, a wearable camera concept that flies off your wrist and turns into a remote-controlled quadcopter. It’s the bizarre-yet-appealing wearable camera drone nobody asked for… and now I kind of want it.

Intel is holding a competition to encourage new wearable technology ideas, and the Nixie is one of the finalists. So far, it’s still in development, so the flying wristlet camera is rough around the edges. Team captain Christoph Kohstall eventually wants you to be able to send the the Nixie flying with a gesture. It would recognize where you’re standing, snap a picture, then return to the wrist, like a futuristic paparazzi boomerang.

If sticking your arm out to capture photos makes you feel like a lo-tech peasant, you’re probably Nixie’s target demographic.

All of that seems to be a long way off still; they’re going to have to make the Nixie extremely consistent to make it worthwhile. After all, getting one of those GoPro stick mounts to take a farther-away shot might not be as convenient of simply flinging a camera off your wrist, but it’s also a lot less complicated. In a crowded area, I’d guess it’d be hard for the Nixie to tell which person it was meant to fly back towards.

The Nixie team has a lot of work to do, but if they can polish their prototype, this is a weird wearable worth watching.

Wearables will get more innovative and creative as we move along. The ones that will stand out will be the ones that provide differentiated consumer value.

Watch the other contestants here: https://makeit.intel.com/finalists


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