Brands are jumping on AI thanks to easier access to data and tech
A view from Marie Stafford

Brands are jumping on AI thanks to easier access to data and tech

Tech that was once just the preserve of research labs and technology giants, is becoming a viable business opportunity for brands, writes Marie Stafford.

When it comes to managing our hair, most of us seem to have muddled along for most of our lives with a simple brush or comb.

Turns out, we could have been doing it all wrong. We now know the error of our ways, thanks to L’Oréal’s Hair Coach, a smart hairbrush packed with sensors, a gyroscope and an accelerometer. This smart hairbrush can assess your technique, feeding back helpful analysis and even vibrating to let you know you are brushing too vigorously.

L’Oréal’s clever brush was just one of a myriad smart lifestyle products and devices launched this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a mecca for anyone looking to peer into the crystal ball for upcoming consumer technology trends.

Smarter products and devices were the story of CES, with artificial intelligence adding a frisson of tech glamour to everything from cars to wearables, from appliances to helpful home robots, while companies like Samsung talked up their plans to deploy technology to make all our lives better in future. An admirable aim, and technology that truly delivers on that promise is likely to be welcomed with open arms.

J Walter Thompson’s Control Shift trend research tells us three-quarters of global consumers feel "technology puts them in control" and 37% of British millennials are even excited about a future where collaboration between humans and robots is common. As technologies like AI and the Internet of Things advance, this future is getting closer.

Advanced technologies that were once just the preserve of research labs and technology giants, are becoming a viable and promising business opportunity for brands for a number of reasons.

Costs of sensors and computational power have fallen, advances in deep learning are helping make sense of data sets and perhaps most significantly, gaining access to existing technologies is getting easier.

Companies from Google to Microsoft to Facebook have opened up their artificial intelligence APIs to all-comers, meaning that brands can now harness the constellation of AI technologies for a reduced investment.

The market is hopeful that consumer appetite will see a boost too with the rise of voice control – Amazon’s Alexa was everywhere at CES – expected to drive the market for intelligent products and services in 2017.

Companies from Google to Microsoft to Facebook have opened up their artificial intelligence APIs to all-comers, meaning that brands can now harness the constellation of AI technologies for a reduced investment.

Some of the more hopeful offerings at CES suggest we may still be finding our way in working out how best to apply some of the new toys in the tech toolbox. I’m looking at you, voice-activated bin that replaces the sheer drudgery of pressing the foot pedal with a merry "Open Sesame". Or you, vibrating, Bluetooth-enabled hot pants that help me find my way home.

While a small section of consumers are impressed by gimmicky executions of bleeding edge technology, most people are just looking for brands to make their lives easier, better and more fun. Clever bells and whistles are no substitute for true consumer understanding.

Technology works best when it’s seamless, authentically, or even invisibly helping companies remove the barriers that prevent their customers getting closer to the brand and product.

For example, Thomas Cook’s use of VR is helping customers to visualise what their flight will be like, and why they might want to pay extra for additional leg room, while Starbucks’ recently announced voice AI functionality is helping customers choose and order their coffee without even having to touch their phone.

There’s a host of technology partners with whom brands can collaborate to bring smarter products and services to market, without having to build them from scratch themselves. Amazon Alexa’s skills kit has allowed thousands of brands to create their own voice interactions, while Google’s Tango software has allowed the likes of BMW and Gap to create augmented reality experiences for customers.

Sure there may be a few teething troubles along the way. It’s still early days for many AI technologies. Witness the stories from Alexa users who report weird and wonderful items ("150,000 bottles of shampoo" and "sled dogs") appearing on their shopping lists. Or Microsoft’s friendly chatbot Tay which had to be quickly decommissioned when it learned how to be racist.

But handled correctly, advanced technology can improve the customer experience and ultimately grow revenues too.

Used to power ideas that are truly helpful, that save time or provide better engagement it can be a real addition to the marketing plan and offer genuine value to consumers.

Marie Stafford is European director of the Innovation Group, JWT.

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