Nestle’s Orchid Bertelsen on Testing Conversational AI and Failing Forward

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Leading digital innovation across more than 70 brands in the Nestlé USA portfolio, Orchid Bertelsen knows that being truly innovative starts with the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s this approach, coupled with a strong “fail-forward” culture, that helps Orchid avoid shiny object syndrome when it comes to tech innovations. Here, see how Orchid’s team is exploring conversational AI more deeply, testing new voice ads with Pandora and why hustle and grind don’t necessarily lead to happiness.

What led you to your role leading digital innovation for Nestlé?

I wish I could say that there was a master plan to get where I am today. But the reality is that I’ve had many different careers and the next move was more about narrowing in on what I’m truly interested in and love…and happen to be good at.

When I started at Nestlé, I was the digital strategist for our ice cream portfolio, as part of our Digital Center of Excellence. I made the move to digital innovation when our Head of Digital and our CMO both saw the opportunity to have someone specialize in emerging technologies and find technology solutions to our challenges. … And so, when that role was officially created, they tapped me for it. I feel exceptionally lucky to have advocates like them and have them recognize the quality of my efforts.

What innovation are you currently exploring at Nestlé?

We’re working with Pandora on an alpha product that explores conversational AI more deeply. We know that voice search and smart speaker sales are on the rise and yet conversational AI is still experiencing a lot of hype. Voice technology is something that we’ve been working on for the past couple of years and we were excited to partner with Pandora on understanding how consumers are interacting with voice technology while they’re in their daily routines. Conversational AI is certainly something that’s evolving and advancing every day.

What’s your approach to AI?

“…with all innovation, we start with the problem we’re trying to solve.”

The way we approach AI is two-fold. First, we categorize AI by interface: text-based, voice/conversational, and image/computer vision. Next, with all innovation, we start with the problem we’re trying to solve. The problem can be a business one or a consumer one, but it’s so important to view technology as a potential solution. Otherwise, you run the risk of just “doing something in VR,” also known as “shiny object” syndrome.

How do you encourage a test-and-learn mindset not just within your team but across the entire company?

We talk about “failing forward” when it comes to test-and-learns. We actually have a Phoenix Award internally which is awarded to projects where we stumble but are able to use the experience as a springboard for something better. For Nestlé, instead of asking “why did you fail?” it’s more about “what did you learn?” Failure has such a negative connotation, but there shouldn’t be any shame associated with it. The hardest thing about encouraging failure and the courage to test is the cultural mindset. Our CEO is so great at setting the culture of the company. And the key takeaway for establishing a mindset of testing and learning is that it has to come from the top down.

What’s currently happening in marketing that most excites you and how is it changing the future of the industry?

Niche communities and the power to organize fascinate me at this moment. Digital marketing went through a fundamental shift when we transitioned from push messaging to the consumers really having a voice. Although there is a place for large social platforms, I’m really in awe at the speed of which other platforms are challenging the status quo. Beyond the technology itself, the speed at which memes are both shaped by and impact culture is astonishing.

@heidefaith Heide is the senior director of brand community at Adweek and Editor of the Inside the Brand series, including the CMO Moves and Gen ZEOs podcasts, Innovators, Challengers, and Women Trailblazers. She also leads Adweek's Innovators Council.