SAN FRANCISCO — Artificial intelligence has already taken over Silicon Valley — and now it’s headed for fashion in a big way.
“All my clients are asking about AI,” said Corinne Sklar, chief marketing officer for Bluewolf, an IBM Company and global consulting agency for clients in retail, finance and other industries. “Digital transformation isn’t about, ‘I just have to get all digital tools,’ it’s about how you use these tools for brand differentiation.”
It’s also about being nimble and acting responsively, Sklar said. That can be difficult for long-established brands and companies, which are often rooted in tradition and reluctant to embrace change.
But change is coming and it could be seen clearly at Salesforce’s Dreamforce 2017 conference here last week.
“The advice is, begin the journey. Don’t wait,” Sklar said. “Where you start is by looking at the brand and really getting to understand your consumer, and then designing a journey — what data you have, what data you need to power that journey? Having a platform can really help speed things, because you need speed to do this — you can’t wait.”
For Bluewolf, that platform comes from integration partner Salesforce, one of the world’s largest software providers. The company’s customer relationship management tools are ubiquitous, powering diverse sectors from fashion and beauty retail to healthcare and life sciences.
Dreamforce hammered home the AI theme to its swelling ranks of current and potential customers — or “trailblazers,” as Salesforce calls them. The annual extravaganza typically draws 170,000 people, and this year, it brought in so-called trailblazers from 91 countries, plus more than 10 million online.
Salesforce chief executive officer Marc Benioff is convinced that society is in its “fourth industrial revolution,” citing the book of the same name authored by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation. The first was mechanical production powered by steam; the second was driven by science and led to mass production, and the third was the digital revolution.
That puts society now in its fourth industrial revolution, with innovations like genetic sequencing, artificial intelligence, miniaturized sensors and 3-D printing shaping how people work, live, communicate and shop.
The concept may sound a bit lofty for a sales and customer relationship management software conference, even if its host is the biggest player on the block. But the context set a perfect backdrop for Salesforce.
“We think about this from a consumer perspective — how does an actual shopper think about engaging with brands?” said Shelley Bransten, Salesforce’s senior vice president of retail. “Our technology sits underneath that, from when a shopper goes looking for something to engagement. We think about our technology as enabling the connected shopper experience.”
Today’s retail world must weigh everything from pre-sales, marketing and trend identification, through to the pivotal transaction point, as well as the after-sales experience in setting the customer journey.
Bransten highlighted some data points from its research: “What do Millennials expect? Eighty-one percent of journeys are crossing multiple channels. Fifty-six percent of consumers expect faster service.”
The company’s tech enabled John Varvatos to unite its digital and in-store experience. At a store tour for its San Francisco retail location, reps demoed how sales associates can pull up a shopper’s preferences and online shopping carts right in the aisles.
At the show, Salesforce heavily promoted its Einstein Predictive Forecasting as a tool that can help customers zero in on and put out fires ahead of time. It also unveiled a new Commerce Cloud Instagram shopping integration, so brands can tag items in their posts with product information and create shoppable content. The company described its Force.com app development tool — repositioned now as the new Lightning Platform — as “the fastest way to go from idea to app.”
The applicability of these tools extend across diverse industries, and diversity — as a theme — was on display in both large and small ways. Apart from the business programming, the show even featured buddhist monks and special “mindfulness” areas on one end, and celebrity sightings on the other.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama discussed education, gender equality and parental rights with Salesforce’s Benioff. Actor and tech investor Ashton Kutcher talked about technology as a force for good. Fashion’s luxury giant Brunello Cucinelli urged tech makers to remember and prioritize the human experience as they develop new tools.
Stargazers had plenty to feast their eyes on, with sessions or performances by Taraji P. Henson, Natalie Portman, Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys and Luis Fonsi.
Will.i.am, a Dreamforce veteran, took the opportunity to introduce Omega, a new AI-based digital assistant offering customer service chat bots.
Those moments accentuated sessions by major brands, such as L’Oréal, Gap and Adidas, the latter of which showed off its AI-powered shopping app. Built on Salesforce technology, the app delivers personalized experiences based on customers’ individual style and purchasing patterns.
One of the most accessible applications of AI in retail is the customer service chat bot, which can lift the burden from human employees.
And Bluewolf’s Sklar noted: “The next trend we’re beginning to see is how you can really leverage AI to drive that automated personalization through these channels — whether it’s through a chat bot and a call center experience, recommending products based on what you’ve purchased in the past.”
“We call it the ‘AI Mindset’: The minute you innovate, you’ve got to keep innovating,” Sklar said. She noted how a lot of people come to events like Dreamforce figuring they’ll add the tools and be done — like popping a diet pill.
“Well, no — you’ve got to work out, you have to eat right and you’ve got to do it constantly,” she said. “It’s the same thing in innovation in your business. It’s not about buying technology. It’s about building a foundation and culture around innovation.”