Plate of Nestlé Toll House cookies on a table.
With Toll House's reputation as the inventor of the original chocolate chip cookie, the company noticed many consumers reaching out with questions pertaining to the baking process. — Nestlé

Why it matters:

  • Home baking surged in the past year amid the pandemic, driving sales of baking products up 24% in 2020, and is poised to continue to rise in 2021.
  • To tap into the trend, Nestlé Toll House’s new lifelike digital baking assistant provides a point of differentiation for the brand while solving a customer service challenge.
  • The strategy illustrates the opportunities for brands to create experiences that extend beyond the products themselves.

Toll House, the Nestlé brand known for its chocolate chip cookie recipe and a range of associated baking ingredients, has introduced an interactive customer-service feature that helps home bakers perfect their cookie creations.

The new online customer support service features a photorealistic video avatar named Ruth who uses artificial intelligence (AI) to answer questions about baking, troubleshoot problems that arise in the baking process and help customers create their own personalized cookie recipes.

“When we were thinking about innovation or breaking through the noise, here is something that is novel and fun, but also provides utility and a solution,” Orchid Bertelsen, head of digital strategy and innovation at Nestlé USA, told CO—.

The Toll House strategy illustrates the opportunities for companies to create experiences around their brands in ways that extend beyond the products themselves. Offering a unique and engaging customer service experience is one way to do this.

The new service, which launched in February, can be accessed through the Toll House website, where Ruth can respond verbally to either spoken questions or to typed chat messages.

[More here on how text-based commerce is helping brands drive business.]

One feature allows users to create their own cookie recipes based on dietary needs, such as gluten-free, and flavor preferences, like substituting Toll House Funfetti for chocolate chips, for example.

Filling an unmet customer service need for baking expertise

The idea to use an avatar for customer service emerged following an analysis of Nestlé USA help center calls, which revealed that a significant number of Toll House customers were reaching out with questions about baking, Bertelsen said.

Most questions about the company’s 40-plus brands, by contrast, concerned where specific products or flavor varieties could be purchased, or ingredient information such as allergen content, for example.

With Toll House, however, consumers seemed to sense that the brand was a repository of insights about the process of baking cookies. Toll House is widely recognized to be the inventor of the original chocolate chip cookie, created by chef Ruth Graves Wakefield (hence the name of the avatar) in 1938 at the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts using chunks of Nestle chocolate.

“I think, to many consumers, we are seen as the originators of that recipe,” said Bertelsen. “So we do have a certain kind of credibility.”

Offering this immersive experience for customers helps elevate Toll House from being a commodity brand among thousands on the supermarket shelves to one that connects with consumers on an emotional level.

Orchid Bertelsen, head of digital strategy and innovation, Nestlé USA

Capitalizing on the pandemic-fueled baking boom

Baking became one of consumers’ favorite pastimes during the pandemic, as consumers sought to take advantage of the increased time spent in their homes. A recent report from research firm Packaged Facts found that about a quarter of consumers spent more time baking last year.

“In 2020, baking product sales soared as more people were spending much of their time at home and looking for productive activities to occupy their time,” the market research firm said in the report. “Baking to have comfort foods in a time of stress has also been a salient trend during the pandemic.”

The firm tallied U.S. baking product sales at $26.5 billion in 2020, an increase of about 24% over 2019 levels. Sales are expected to continue to rise in 2021, the report predicted, before declining in 2022 as the impacts of the pandemic are expected to dissipate.

When Nestlé analyzed its responses to consumers’ baking-related questions in its customer service department, it realized there was room for improvement. Responses had been inconsistent, as service agents were taking calls from all of Nestlé’s brands, and were not necessarily baking experts.

That led to the idea of creating a better way to access Toll House’s resources around baking information. The company considered several options, and eventually decided to partner with an avatar technology company called Soul Machines to create Ruth as the resident virtual expert in what the company calls its “cookie coach” service.

[Read here on business trends nudged by the pandemic.]

 Ruth, Nestlé's AI "cookie coach."
To provide an immersive customer experience, Toll House partnered with avatar technology company Soul Machines to create Ruth: a resident virtual expert and “cookie coach." — Nestlé

Consumers warm up to digital avatars, but for Nestlé, getting the voice right was key

Consumers have grown increasingly receptive to digital avatars in a range of applications, from video games to telemedicine visits. At the same time, companies including Facebook and The Walt Disney Co. have recently cited big advances in their own development of virtual avatar technologies.

Indeed, technology has improved so that the latest avatars overcome the so-called “uncanny valley,” which is the tendency for consumers to reject avatars that too closely resemble humans. The theory posits that too-close-to-lifelike avatars can create uneasiness among viewers.

For Nestlé, one of the keys to consumer acceptance of Ruth during testing, Bertelsen said, was ensuring that people were comfortable with her voice, and that it projected the personality Toll House was seeking to create.

“When it came to the face, there wasn’t that much preference in terms of something photorealistic or something more animated,” she said. “But when it came to the voice, that was incredibly important. The No. 1 priority was how realistic the voice could sound.”

The end result is a soothing female voice that doesn’t sync up exactly with the lip movements of the avatar, but speaks fluidly with an earnest tone that bolsters her positioning as a helpful expert.

Offering this immersive experience for customers helps elevate Toll House from being a commodity brand among thousands on the supermarket shelves to one that connects with consumers on an emotional level, Bertelsen said.

“That's kind of the Holy Grail of innovation,” she said. “You want something that hasn't really been done before, especially in your space, and that enhances the overall consumer experience with your brand. This experience really differentiates Toll House from the rest of the baking category.”

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