Case StudyNestlé USA drives consumer engagement with cookie coach, AI bot ‘Ruth’

Nestlé USA drives consumer engagement with cookie coach, AI bot ‘Ruth’

How a non-cookie-cutter strategy optimized CX and won the brand a historic average session length

30-second summary:

  • It’s a pressure cooker situation when marketers are expected to add value to consumer experiences as well as the business in an attention economy
  • Brands need to scratch beyond the surface to derive consumer insights, win trust, and devise strategies that truly engage consumers
  • Discover how Nestlé USA unlocked deeper levels of consumer engagement, greater trust, and personalization with the help of an AI-powered cookie coach

Nestlé USA identified an opportunity to evolve their consumers’ baking experiences. The result? A deeply involved approach that got the Nestlé brand closer to its consumers’ day-to-day lives. The company achieved exceptional consumer engagement with average session lengths that are unheard of in marketing.

We spoke with Orchid Bertelsen, Nestlé USA’s head of digital strategy & innovation, to uncover the challenges, strategy, leadership, cutting-edge technology, and teamwork involved in hitting its #MarketingGoals.

The challenge: inconsistent consumer experiences

Nestlé Toll House cookies are a household favorite associated with joy, comfort, and happy memories. So, when consumers called the Nestlé helpline asking for recipe troubleshooting tips for the original Toll House chocolate chip cookie, they would be assisted by executives who aren’t baking experts. The outcome? Highly inconsistent consumer experiences.

“If you happen to meet with a brand ambassador who is very well versed in baking, you will have a great experience. However, if you connect with someone who didn’t bake that often, you will naturally have a very poor experience,” says Bertelsen.

Bertelsen and her team at Nestlé set out to meet consumers in their moment of need.

The solution: Ruth, an AI digital human for all the cookie 911 emergencies

Launched in February 2021, Ruth is an AI-based digital human named after Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the signature Toll House chocolate chip cookie. Ruth was created to help consumers bake and customize their perfect Toll House cookies. The Nestlé team tapped into the steadily rising trend of voice experiences after carefully observing behaviors people engaged in while looking for guidance on how to bake the best cookies at home. Ruth has been developed with the purpose of providing secure, flexible, and more personalized experiences to people based on their dietary preferences and language.

Butterball International’s Turkey hotline and Lil Miquela (a 19 yr-old robot influencer with 3m followers) were some inspirations behind creating Ruth’s avatar.

How Ruth defines the consumer experience that Nestlé envisions

While specific to the Toll House brand, Ruth fits into the overall consumer experience strategy that broadly sits across Nestlé USA’s 30 brands. A lot of the key pain points in providing a stellar consumer experience are related to something manual or human as compared to technology-centric problems. The idea was to apply AI and conversational technology to automate repetitive human tasks and optimize efficiency using machine learning.

Ruth not only helps with customer experience optimization (CXO) but also frees up the Nestlé brand ambassador team to focus on key areas like strategy and creativity.

About Ruth: the makings of a trustworthy companion that boosts CXO

The Nestlé team went through a year of strategy sessions to holistically understand Nestlé’s brand positioning and existence in the voice technology space. The team needed to know how to piece together the Toll House brand’s voice strategy with Nestlé’s larger, overall audio strategy.

Prioritizing agility, accessibility, and human feedback to enable organic conversations

Orchid and her team wanted to ensure that Ruth is easily accessible no matter where the consumer was. Hence, they decided to make Ruth a web-based solution that is not limited to a particular ecosystem, like Amazon, Apple, or Google.

“We wanted it to be multidimensional because all innovation is a new solution to an old problem”, said Orchid.

While audio is powerful, people still crave visual reinforcement which is why Ruth needed to provide a multimodal experience.

As part of their agile development strategy, the team had a long-term vision for Ruth and intended to improve her synthetic memory with consumers’ preferences. For this, they also set up a feedback loop at the end of the experience. The survey helped serve answers to critical questions that helped the team better understand and measure consumer experiences:

  • How do consumers feel about Ruth?
  • Do they enjoy using her assistance?
  • To what level is Ruth able to add value to their everyday lives as a cookie coach?

Data privacy, the key ingredient to making Ruth a trustworthy companion

If data is the dough, then trust is the binding agent of this AI-powered cookie coach. As trust lies at the heart of personalization and intent-rich interactions, the Nestlé team used anonymized data for the entire project. So, how did they identify challenges, enhance personalization, and apply these insights at a macro-level without compromising consumer trust? These were some parameters investigated to achieve these:

  • Average session lengths
  • The number of people who had sessions
  • Return visitors
  • Average number of questions asked per session
  • Questions Ruth stumbles upon
  • Topics that commonly show up in interactions (for example, allergies or dietary supplements for ingredients)

“Consumers are willing to share their data if it offers them a better experience. With Ruth, it’s very clear and upfront that we are not recording the conversation, we’re not recording your audio, we’re not using your camera. We always want to be very transparent about how our data is used.” – Orchid Bertelsen, head of digital strategy & innovation, Nestlé USA

Challenges surrounding the execution and strategy

Orchid highlighted some classic challenges that proved to be an integral part of their success as a brand, a leader, and a strategist.

Getting buy-in from the board

You can’t push boundaries and innovate new solutions if you don’t have the board’s support. Getting buy-in from all levels of the organization always carries a tension between innovation and immediate business impact. This wasn’t a negative tension for the Nestlé team but stakeholder buy-in and management needed more strategic thinking and planning.

“We’ve got to paint the vision, but also address immediate needs,” Orchid said.

Justifying business value and attributing a sales lift

Another challenge was measuring success, especially while trying to delineate between consumer value and business value.

“Attributing sales lift or direct sales when a DTC channel isn’t associated is difficult. Best case scenario, business value, and consumer value are aligned, but often they aren’t.” Orchid added.

Identifying the right partners and tech stack

There are multiple moving pieces in crafting a voice experience strategy. Once the team scoped out the opportunity and won C-suite support, the next prime action was to identify the right partners and tech stack for execution.

“To encourage natural conversations, we needed an NLP engine to seamlessly convert speech to text from the consumer and text to speech from Ruth. The conversational design was the more creative side of the execution, which included creating Ruth’s personality, her voice, script, and copywriting. So, it was very important that we had the right partners”, said Orchid.

As Orchid drove the project, the Toll House brand team was a key stakeholder and an instrumental part of her core team. The team comprised of:

  • An agency partner, SoulMachines – handling the design of the conversational interface
  • The internal customer service team – to feed insights from day-to-day consumer interactions
  • In-house social media community management team – tasked with social listening and consumer insights
  • Baker in residence – adding credibility and a deep understanding of the baking process
  • In-house analytics team – charged with dissecting data and informing strategy

Striking the balance between leadership, trade-offs, and CX

Every innovation is faced with challenges and what makes or breaks the eventual outcome is vision and leadership. When Orchid and her team were faced with a trade-off decision (making Ruth completely touchless vs making Ruth accurate) they wisely chose to stick to the vision while considering their consumers’ kitchen environment.

“I think there are some parts of the experience that we want to improve for sure. Consumers currently need to hit the spacebar to speak to Ruth which keeps it from being an entirely touchless experience. And yet, the reason that I have those is extremely intentional.”

She elaborated on her intention behind this decision:

“The kitchen can have a lot of background noise making it hard to understand speech. We really wanted to focus on understanding the person and providing the right guidance and did not want to sacrifice Ruth’s ability to do so with accuracy. To mitigate that challenge we ultimately had to make the trade-off.”

“We want our consumers to be intentional when they engage with Ruth and so if that meant hitting a button while they’re speaking so Ruth can better understand and assist you, we would make that trade-off.”

Overcoming challenges with transparency and trust

Orchid and her team overcame the challenges by being transparent about what the project was vs. what it wasn’t.

“Setting and managing expectations is the name of the game when you’re building innovative solutions and navigating uncharted waters,” she added.

Did the pandemic affect the strategy in any capacity?

Since the birth of Ruth was weeks before the pandemic locked us all indoors, we asked Orchid if that impacted her team’s plans for their AI-powered cookie coach?

“I don’t think the pandemic created net new behaviors,” Orchid said.

“But it accelerated a lot of existing behaviors and technology adoption.”

The outcomes: record-breaking sessions and greater consumer trust

The Nestlé team has recorded an average session length of nine to 13 minutes which is a rare achievement for any marketing channel. Consumer feedback has uncovered that people enjoy interacting with Ruth and want to know more about her backstory.

The almost two-year-long project has proven that when brands identify a way to differentiate themselves in a crowded and commoditized category, they should lean in.

Greater trust in leadership and teamwork

Trust breeds bravery. Trust is and will remain the key to brand success.

“We couldn’t have done this without the trust and partnership from our Toll House brand team,” Orchid said.

“This was a leap of faith in various ways, and we were able to do that together and trust each other.”

Fortune cookie

Ruth’s future looks bright. Nestlé USA plan on developing her back story and making her multi-lingual.

“We’re working on building out Ruth’s new and improved version and we’ll be hiding some Easter eggs in the experience.” Orchid stated.

The team will also be working on improvising Ruth’s synthetic memory to add more personalization and recall value to consumers who interact with her.

“Definitely a lot more to come, you’ll just have to keep an eye out,” Orchid said.

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