Madison Avenue has for decades trotted out a dizzying array of marketing avatars to talk to consumers. Mr. Whipple wanted to speak about squeezing Charmin. Ronald McDonald had a yen for discussing milkshakes or french fries. Now, advertisers are getting ready, instead, to listen.
NBCUniversal’s new Peacock streaming service has since mid-August been running a new type of commercial that asks certain Comcast subscribers to speak up through technology in their remote controls to gain an offer. A new one of these commercials – from Unilever and Target – launches Thursday, and requires viewers to use the phrase “Save With Suave” to get a $5 gift card from Target. Coors Light is also utilizing the new technology, which NBC calls an “on command” ad.
“It’s critical that our brands show up where our consumer is, whether that’s online, on TV, via streaming services, in the audio space or wherever else they are consuming content,” says Rob Master, vice president of media and digital engagement for Unilever, which makes Suave. He notes that “the idea that someone could have the option of receiving a coupon or learning more about a product in the midst of watching a show was a really interesting and appealing idea to us. The experience is what you make of it, so you can either decide to engage with the unit and get an offer or simply continue to watch the ad.”
NBC and its Peacock sponsors are in the midst of a unique balancing act. They need TV commercials to thrive, but must be cautious about inserting commercials into a streaming environment. Part of the reason viewers flock to streaming services like Peacock is that it features hours of programming that often contains few commercials – and sometimes even none. NBC has vowed to run no more than five minutes of ads per hour in the venue.
There is a new rush of interest in streaming, particularly as more consumers migrate away from watching primetime TV in day-and-date fashion. A consumer-products giant like Unilever remains eager to get messages about Dove, Ben & Jerry’s or Hellman’s in front of a sizable audience. And NBC needs the ads to maintain a critical stream of revenue. And yet, both must pursue their goals in an environment where viewers are more prone to feel like commercials are getting in the way of their binge.
“TV is inherently a lean-back entertainment vehicle,” says Rob Aksman, chief strategy officer at BrightLine, a developer of ad technology for interactive venues. “The key will be layering this on in a way that isn’t interruptive to the viewing experience, but rather complements it.”
The companies behind some of the biggest ad-supported streaming services have been working diligently to come up with new ad formats that will entice viewers, not anger them. Walt Disney’s Hulu in recent months has designed “pause ads” that surface when viewers stop the action on their screen, and in June unveiled new commercials from companies like Sweetgreen and TheRealReal that prompt viewers to take to a mobile device to get a coupon or redeem an offer. That concept is akin to the new voice-command option from NBC.
NBC has room to experiment. The company signed a handful of sponsors, including Verizon, Subaru, State Farm and the advertisers mentioned above, to exclusive deals that give them access to test a growing array of new commercial formats. As part of the agreements, NBCUniversal gets to see what types of ideas spur audiences and figure out new economic models, says Krishan Bhatia, executive vice president of business operations and strategy at NBCU’s ad-sales division. As such, deals could be based on elements other than the audience measures that have been the bedrock of TV ad deals for decades. “The gamut runs from impression-based to cost per engagement to cost per action,” says Bhatia.
The voice-command technology has been a popular element of Comcast’s offering for its X1 and Flex services, notes Daniel Spinosa, the cable company’s vice president of video and entertainment. By giving viewers a chance to seek information on the screen in front of them, rather than a second one, he says, voice technology “simplifies the TV experience and makes it much more customer friendly. You are using the remote to move through the experience more efficiently, and that adds value.” Comcast also happens to be able to see in real time what sorts of queries subscribers are making, which gives the company data about what new voice-based experiences to build, such as voting for a favorite on a show like “America’s Got Talent.”
“We are not pushing something out to consumers,” says Zane Vella, Comcast’s vice president of product. “It’s really a lean in.”
All the work to make things simple could have the unintended result of raising new complexities for advertisers. BrightLine’s Aksman expects Amazon’s Fire and Google’s Android to offer similar voice-activated concepts in the not-too-distant future, and predicts marketers will have to tailor deals to each company. “Since each device’s voice capabilities are confined to that device’s ecosystem, this can lead to a very fragmented experience for advertisers and content providers that want cross-device distribution,” he says. “Sure, buying this kind of ad from Amazon that only runs on Fire TV works, but what about a provider that’s on all devices?” Advertisers will have to activate more than individual voices to answer that question.