Brands are finding new ways to advertise in your car

New advertising opportunities could be opening up for brands in cars thanks to voice assistants.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Ads are everywhere. They’re in the sky, on water bottles, in restrooms, and so on. They’ve been in cars for quite a while via the radio, but they’re finding new ways to reach drivers, in part thanks to voice assistants.

Amazon’s Alexa is integrated with dozens of car brands, and the company also sells a hands-free car accessory called Echo Auto equipped with the voice assistant. Google’s Android Auto lets drivers use Google Assistant, just as Apple’s CarPlay lets them tap into Siri on the road. Some automakers, like Mercedes, have developed voice assistants of their own.

Of course, brands can reach drivers by running ads on the radio and platforms like Spotify. But marketers are starting to think outside the box—though still inside the car—in order to come up with new ways to reach and engage drivers through voice while their eyes stay on the road.

Wheels are turning

Amazon offers advertisers some opportunities to have a presence on Alexa, but there’s currently “no paid advertising” that’s specific to vehicles, and the company is not considering adding in-car ad inventory at the moment, Arianne Walker, head of product marketing for Amazon smart vehicles, said.

“Alexa acts as sort of a copilot to provide customers with the information that they’re looking for, to make that drive entertaining and productive, but we’re not advertising,” she explained.

Nevertheless, brands and agencies have persisted.

James Poulter, CEO and co-founder of European voice agency Vixen Labs, said his company started working on a voice app for McDonald’s in the UK in early 2021 as a response to Covid lockdowns.

After the launch of the original voice app, Amazon enabled a feature that made it so “we can tell whether or not someone was actually using an Echo Auto or Echo by picking up their location if they’re on the move,” Poulter said, so the skill was adjusted to provide “restaurant routing information and deals” specifically with drivers in mind as a use case.

Despite that feature, “it’s hard to draw any concrete conclusions from it yet,” Poulter told us. However, he said he feels optimistic that in-car voice apps could one day become more popular as companies increasingly include “invocations in their outdoor marketing” and “the popularization of these actionable audio campaigns.”

The long road

Other voice agencies are also still in the fairly early days of implementing these kinds of in-car campaigns. Charles Cadbury, CEO of actionable audio ad-tech company Say It Now, said he had them in mind when he was setting up the company in 2018 and even applied for the trademark “Actionable Outdoor Ads”—aka “the car use case”—at the time, though they’re not running yet.

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Voice apps specifically designed to be used in cars and accompanying ads promoting them specifically to drivers are likely three to five years down the line for the agency, according to Cadbury, because “the behavior’s not there.” Michal Marcinik, founder and CEO of programmatic audio advertising platform AdTonos, said he’s “started to pitch a couple of automotive brands” on working together regarding in-car voice campaigns. The talks are in early stages, he said, but there is “some interest” coming from car companies.

“At the moment, people believe that Alexa sits in the corner of the room,” Cadbury said. “As the voice systems get delivered through your TV, through your light bulb, through whatever, suddenly Alexa becomes everywhere, and that includes your car. That makes it easy for people to then activate these advertising messages.”

In-car voice experiences could go hand in hand with OOH advertising, voice agency execs said, since brands could use inventory like billboards to help inform drivers that they can perform tasks, like asking for information or placing an order, via voice.

Marcinik said he’s already working with a programmatic OOH company in the UK “on some potential campaigns to check how we could simultaneously reach the same group of customers” with display and audio ads, which he’s hoping to test by next year.

For instance, hypothetically a billboard for an airline could prompt a driver to book a flight in their car using voice tech, Cadbury said. Or restaurants like Starbucks could encourage drivers to place pickup or delivery orders from their cars.

Several years back, some brands tried to encourage people to order that way, but “no one did it,” Dylan Zwick, co-founder and chief product officer at Pulse Labs, a research company that has studied voice in the car, said.

“It was a fundamentally significantly worse experience than doing it on your phone or on your computer, which are almost always immediately available wherever you are in your home, and so [doing] it on your smart speaker in your living room didn’t make a lot of sense,” Zwick told us. “When you’re driving, it could.”

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