Choosing four families, entering their most private spaces, converting them into ‘smart’ homes, and monitoring the results sounds like the premise of a reality TV show, Nicole Conroy, Starcom’s head of insight, acknowledges.
And yet, it’s a marketing experiment Starcom, which dubs itself the ‘human experience company’, conducted alongside corporate partners like Visa, Samsung, and Seven West Media to imagine what Australian homes could look like in 2023.
After all, the introduction of ‘smart’ devices that make our homes ‘smart’ has gone better than expected. Far better. Forecasts earlier this year said that Australia would catch up with US smart speaker penetration in around 2022. Fast forward and we’re about to overtake the US at some point this month or next. Three years ahead of schedule.
Starcom started with dozens of families who applied for the experiment, whittling them down to four who represented the diversity of Australia – age, gender, sexual orientation, family unit, and, importantly, technological competency.
“We looked at SINKs [single income no kids] and DINKs [double income no kids], we looked at working families, busy parents juggling all that life brings, extended families where we had multiple generations living in the same households, right through to empty nesters,” Conroy says.
The four families chosen found that, as their spaces transformed, so too did their perceptions of, and interactions with, their homes.
Turning 2019 homes into 2023 ones meant the introduction of smart speakers, lights, fridges, watches, door locks, washers and dryers, and robo vacuums – a combination of which was chosen based on the specific family’s needs, expectations, and challenges.
“It’s the first time this has been done so we had to lay the groundwork. We decided it was important to do this in the context of people’s real lives and real homes,” Conroy explains.
“Because that way we could see how their needs, motivations, fears and challenges, things that don’t necessarily change, would play out in that new environment.”
Ron and Kevin were the oldest participants, elderly empty nesters who said they love their digital alarm clock because “you just press a button and away you go” and referred to a newspaper as “television on paper”.
But even they, with the lowest tech competency of the families, quickly adapted to learning to speak to their house.
“She’s part of the family now,” is how Ron and Kevin describe Alexa. They thank her whenever she answers a question they ask.
And the experience of the other families wasn’t dissimilar. Speaking to their houses led many family members to feel closer to their spaces, and expect more from their devices, offering feedback on the meal planning and shopping functionality of their smart fridges, or fantasising about being able to issue a voice command to turn on their coffee machine and have it make their cappuccino exactly how they like it.
“What we found is that once we went from one to two devices in a home, all the way up to 50 or 60 over a period of a weekend, is it totally changed the perception of people for their home and how they related to it,” Conroy says.
“So if you think about individual actions that we’re making through an individual device, things like turning on lights or send your robo vacuum to run, opening your front door – they might seem like small things, but when they’re all combined together, they create a totally different way of smart living.
“And the people in the homes really aspire to make the most of this smart lifestyle. They wanted to feel smarter by living in these smart homes.”
Conroy adds that voice became the “gateway” to these smart homes and was adopted within hours, even by Ron and Kevin.
“People really quickly moved from this idea that I was speaking to a global behemoth or an individual device into thinking that they were speaking to their very own home,” she explains.
“And this really changed the way that they related to it. Because it’s my own home, I expect it to understand me and to intuit exactly what I want.”
This acceleration of expectations is what Starcom is calling the “expectation revolution”. The smarter their homes are, the smarter people realise they could be, and the more they expect. And the brands that get ahead of, and succeed at, fulfilling those expectations will be brands that provide a user experience that feels almost brandless. People want to speak to their homes. They don’t want to speak to a Google Home or Amazon Alexa.
“They don’t want to see everything connecting, they’re expecting brands and businesses to be working together in the background, to be openly sharing data, and making things come together for them,” Conroy says, proposing that people are happy to offer more and more data if they can see the value exchange that they benefit from too.
“The next big consideration really is around trust. People are effectively inviting brands and services into the hearts and minds of their homes. And trust becomes more important than ever. Only the most trusted brands will become people’s life brands that they can’t live without.”
But how do you get people to go from thinking about and seeing your brand to articulating it to a smart device? This is a challenge Graeme Wood, Starcom’s national head of product and futures, is all too familiar with. It’s about going “from top of mind to tip of tongue”.
“The specific threat is in this lack of visual cues. So brands have been developed for generations based on distinctive visual equities, assets that are easy to think of … and easy to see in purchase situations,” he says.
“In order to have this sort of subconscious, audio-based decision process, brands are going to succeed by moving from top of mind to tip of tongue. Moving from mental availability to verbal availability. That means having the most immediate, and the strongest associations for reasons that people might think about the category.”
But mental availability, spurred by visual cues, will drive verbal availability. And brands can get ahead of competitors, according to Wood, if they lean into that. He references the fact that more than 25% of Australians have a smart speaker in their homes already, and more than half of that number has been gifted to them by Woolworths.
But this “expectation revolution” also involves families holding brands like Woolworths to a higher standard. One participant, Nancy, put on a virtual reality headset to imagine she could walk around the aisles of Woolworths to do her grocery shopping. She still has hesitations about ordering through her fridge, because she likes her tomatoes a certain colour and ripeness, and she’d be relying on someone else to interpret that correctly.
And another, Lorina, said she’d love to be transported into luxury stores via VR. If she could be transported into designer boutiques, she could touch the shoes, and see the price tags “in real life”. For her, it’s a way to “dream”.
These fantasies are expectations, in a way. And they’re expectations that Wood suggests is shifting us, through smart homes, into a world of hyper-personalised service.
“That sort of personalised, hyper service is going to become the new CX, VX benchmark over the coming years and it summarises a lot of the accelerated expectations that our households talked about for how the how the outside world should keep up,” he explains.
“So there’s huge challenges in applying this level of personalisation in today’s martech stacks. But the important thing to bear in mind is that after just a few weeks of experience of only mildly intelligent agents, this was the revolution in our households’ expectations from brands and services.”
Viva la revolución indeed.