AUSTIN, TX — Artificial intelligence and its sister technologies like machine learning and machine vision have been the talk of the town at South by Southwest and in the marketing industry more broadly for years. However, for L'Oreal and The Home Depot, these areas have rapidly evolved from marketing buzzwords and early experiments into necessities for engaging their customers.
Speaking on a panel moderated by Cheddar TV about the future of AI and marketing at the Austin, TX, conference on Saturday, Rachel Weiss, VP of innovation and entrepreneurship at L'Oreal, and Melanie Babcock, senior director of agile marketing at Home Depot, spoke on how the technology and its related fields have started to tangibly impact their jobs, from creative strategies to the teams that they work with. The two brands talked about how they're partnering more closely with platforms like Pinterest, which was present on the panel, when it comes to thinking about visual search and how AI plays a big role in that space when tailoring relevant content.
"If you have 1,000 faucets in your catalog, people don't want to see 1,000 faucets — they want to know what faucet is best at my price point," said Babcock. "To offer up products that are relevant to you requires a significant amount of AI and machine learning."
Unlike other bleeding-edge technology, AI is more than just another tool for the toolkit — and certainly more than a shiny object, according to these marketers — instead serving as an important solution for managing critical marketing channels.
"It's significantly changed my role," Babcock said.
"In four years, social changed — it went from brand marketing to extreme performance-driven marketing," she added, detailing how she now works with a team of data scientists, audience strategists, creatives and media planners. "We've had to literally change our organizational structure to work in this way."
The future of commerce and shopping
That rapid pace of transformation has applied to channels like messenger bots as well, whose functions have considerably expanded beyond simple conversations in a short span of time, according to Weiss. L'Oreal now leverages bots for functions spanning customer care to product recommendations and signing users up for its loyalty program, and the beauty marketer doesn't view their role as diminishing.
"For us, we really see [bots] as a future channel of shopping and commerce," Weiss said. "We make it so that it's a one-stop shop [and] the most effective and fast way that you can't do on any other channel, that you can't do on social and you can't do in a store."
While bots are reaching a level of intelligence that delivers value past the novelty of interacting with a brand representative that's non-human, Weiss doesn't foresee a robot takeover in the near future.
"It's less around the artificial intelligence piece [than] it is around the utility piece and the fact that you can push a notification on your phone after interacting with that kind of service," Weiss said. "It's replacing and also supplementing the strategy that we already have for other, different channels."
A work in progress
As with any industry disruption, these developments have unsettled brands' businesses as much as they've presented new opportunities for innovation and reaching shoppers.
"It can be scary to marketers and the leaders of some organizations," Weiss said. "It requires different kinds of back-end systems; it can be expensive; it's different skill sets and different talent that you have put in. It's a whole new conversation."
Advancements in AI are additionally putting greater demand on marketers to take on instructive roles that inform their brands about why these technologies are important and how to properly apply them.
"Education is probably 80% of my job," Home Depot's Babcock said. "Talking about the use of data, data sources and how this will make us better. Education is down and up — we're constantly educating the organization about why this is the best approach to marketing."
With these shifts come changing definitions of key performance indicators for marketing as well. Babcock said that AI has opened Home Depot up to experiments that show zero return on more traditional measures of success but are still "great" for the business in how it thinks about targeting shoppers with relevant content. Weiss echoed those sentiments and suggested that AI also presents new ways to gauge success around customer attention, time spent and degree of happiness.
"There's always a buzzword every single year. We talked about bots, voice, AI. For me, what the KPI is, [it's] seamless consumer adoption," Weiss added. "I always feel really successful when we talk about something as a buzzword or something new but then it's so integrated in our consumers' lives that we don't even talk about it anymore.
People who talk about AI and computer vision — in two years, it's just going to be table stakes for everything that we do," she said.