She’s always there when you need her. You can ask her anything, anytime. She always knows the right thing to say, but she also tells you what you need to hear, when you need to hear it. She helps you reach your goals. You’re always learning something from her, and vice versa. She pays attention to you and what you like. She remembers your birthday, your mom’s birthday, your neighbor’s birthday – all the birthdays. She’s reliable, supportive and always willing to do whatever you tell her to do – and never says you’re being bossy. Oh, and she has the best taste in music.

She’s the unicorn of friends – except that she’s not too good to be true or impossible to find. In fact, Alexa is everywhere these days. Which is why brands and marketers are paying attention, says Assistant Professor of Marketing Jennifer B. Barhorst.

“When we interact with artificial intelligence voice assistants like Alexa and Siri, we get these really human-like personalized social experiences that can go beyond utility – and that’s when we start to view them as companions, as friends,” says Barhorst, whose paper titled “Alexa, do voice assistants influence consumer brand engagement? Examining the role of AI powered voice assistants in influencing consumer brand engagement” was recently published in the Journal of Business Research. “My research partners and I are interested in how these emotional technology-consumer relationships form and the opportunities they create for brands to engage consumers.”

It’s something that also interests her students, who have grown up in a digital environment but may not have asked the hows and whys about the technologies they use every day. It gets them thinking about the future of marketing and voice assistants (VAs).

“As consumers increasingly use their VAs for more and more things, the utility factor helps to facilitate a relationship between the technology and the consumer, giving brands the advantage,” says Barhorst. “As we foster a positive relationship with the VA, we are also forming a positive relationship with the brand.”

And, like all good relationships, it starts with trust and understanding.

“We get a sense of connection when we feel like our VAs understand us,” says Barhorst, who co-authored the paper with Graeme McLean (University of Strathclyde, U.K.) and Kofi Osei-Frimpong (University of Professional Studies, Ghana). “If the social cues seem human and personalized, we start trusting them and building these positive relationships, and that opens up the potential for positive brand engagement.”

It’s a whole new level of intimacy for brands – giving them access to personal space they’ve never had before. But, Barhorst found, positive brand engagement doesn’t always lead to future purchases – probably because we use our VAs mostly at home, not in the store.

“A lot of it is atmospheric,” she says. “Because we’re not in the home space, the [retail] atmosphere may not trigger us to think about the brand. That might change as wearable AI technology like Amazon Echo Frames [eyeglasses with Alexa] become more ubiquitous.”

Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before friends like this become inseparable.