How L’Oreal is exploring AI-powered chat

The company has partnered with Automat on a series of new services and will open a global "AI centre for excellence" in Montreal.

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L’Oreal’s recently announced partnership with Automat is the first step of the beauty brand’s plan to dive into the conversational marketing and artificial intelligence spaces.

A series of beauty-focused services on Facebook Messenger, which will be rolled out in the coming months, are largely a way for L’Oreal to test-and-learn with applications such as chatbots and virtual assistants, says Stéphane Bérubé, CMO of L’Oreal Canada.

Automat, based in Montreal, specializes in building “conversational marketing” systems on messaging platforms using speech recognition, natural language understanding and AI. The company is no stranger to the beauty space. Last year, it helped Cover Girl create a bot that imitated one of Instagram’s top influencers, analyzing her speech patterns across all of her social media posts in order to hold conversations with fans and point them in the direction of products they might be interested in. The execution was recently named a finalist for this year’s One Show.

“We believe messaging platforms will be a big part of how we communicate with our consumer in the future and how consumers will engage with us and the world,” Bérubé says. “That means we have to start learning the topic as soon as possible. The faster you learn, the smarter you’re going to be and better able to stay ahead of the curve.”

Martin Aubut, head of digital at L’Oreal Canada, adds that learning fast will also help the AI powering the chat get smarter as well. While the company’s first attempts at conversational marketing will likely be fairly simple, with the bot leading users through a series pre-set questions, the idea is that it could evolve to the point where it is able to respond to a broader set of questions.

“The first thing to do is learn about the consumer so the discussion can be made more relevant to them,” Aubut says. “Second, and one thing we’re starting to work towards with Automat, is how we are able to work with natural language processing, which is open questions. Right now, we’re guiding the bot a bit more so it can learn. But in the future, any question it is asked could be answered by a bot.”

Interest from brands in messaging apps has increased along with the numbers of users on the platforms, with Facebook Messenger alone topping one billion active users last year. Bérubé adds that messaging platforms have a lot of potential when it comes to reaching younger consumers, which is particularly important for L’Oreal brands like NYX, Urban Decay and Kiehl’s.

The first service L’Oreal and Automat have launched together is the “Beauty Gifter,” a service that will help users select the right gift box for a friend by answering conversational questions that help the bot figure out the friend’s beauty profile and determine which L’Oreal brands and products are right for them.

Bérubé says Beauty Gifter is an effort to capitalize on the increased interest in beauty products as gifts, and will be the subject of a marketing campaign later this month as part of the lead-up to Mother’s Day. But there are a number of other consumer needs bots could respond to that L’Oreal is exploring, such as the desire to learn more about the ingredients that go into the products they buy.

“If I search for ingredients on Google, I’m searching based on keywords,” Bérubé says. “A bot can offer information that is personalized based on a user’s questions. The marketer’s dream is to engage one-to-one. With search, people are reading generic information that isn’t personalized to their questions or needs. The only way to do that is a conversation, and a bot lets us scale those conversations.”

In addition to the partnership with Automat, L’Oreal increased its commitment to AI by announcing plans to establish a new “center of excellence for AI” that will be based in Montreal. While details of the centre, how it will be staffed and how it will work within the global L’Oreal organization are still being determined, Bérubé says its main goal will be to find the best way for the company to tap into Montreal’s “world class” ecosystem of AI talent.

“This [Beauty Gifter] project was lead by our CTO in Paris with the help of Martin,” he says. “Geography doesn’t have a lot to do with it. At the end of the day, do we need to staff a big team of AI experts in Montreal? I’m not sure yet, because there are a lot of potential ways for L’Oreal to benefit from the larger ecosystem in Montreal.”