Innovator Insights: Nestlé USA’s Orchid Bertelsen

June 10, 2020

As Head of Digital Innovation & Transformation at Nestlé USA, Orchid Bertelsen’s work has been even more in-demand within her company to help her portfolio of 20 brands adapt to a post-COVID climate. 

“A lot of people are saying ‘my innovation projects are getting cut,’ because they’re usually science projects or really far out. But the reality is we’re busier than ever because we've been preparing for this primarily digital future which is where we are today,” she said during Brand Innovators’ Retail & Digital Innovation Virtual Summit on May 19. Check out an archive of her Fireside Chat with Tony Parisi, Head of AR/VR Ad Innovation at Unity Technologies HERE. “Innovation is about finding solutions to traditional problems.”

Bertelsen’s current role was created for her in 2017 after two years with the company as a digital marketing manager and previous stints at mcgarrybowen and FTI Strategic Consulting Communications. The position was designed to “establish this top-down strategic approach in emerging technology like AI, AR and VR,” Bertelsen said, “and build new capabilities and scale those across the portfolio. My focus ranges anywhere from back-office ops to front-end consumer-facing experiences.”. 

Bertelsen shared many guidelines and best practices for other companies to keep in mind when building out their own innovation departments, as well as key learnings from her own work that led her to redefine “ROI” as “return on insight.” Here are four takeaways from Bertelsen’s talk.

“I’m not worried when something fails. I’m worried when something succeeds because then you have to scale it.”

Bertelsen’s “return on insight” ROI metric is rooted in the same cost-benefit analysis as an insurance policy. “Here's the cost of doing this, but here’s the cost of not doing it. I think even through this pandemic right now, you're probably starting to see some organizations realize, ‘Oh, so when I said no to these initiatives this is the price I’m paying and now I don’t have a way to get to my consumers.’” 

This is why Bertelsen is more concerned with an innovation’s success. “Let’s say you run a proof of concept, it absolutely blows all your KPIs and benchmarks out of the water. You learn so many new things that you didn’t even think were possible. Now, you probably tested on one brand, so how do you start to scale that within the organization to multiple brands having a lot of stakeholders? You probably have to have some sort of prioritization or brand rollout roadmap. And candidly, it’s all fun and games when something is funded from my budget. But as soon as we prove it out and the brand needs to start paying for it year after year, that's a very different conversation. I'm not so much worried about failure. My CMO is wonderful - she’s like, ‘You gotta be comfortable with failure, and you gotta be comfortable with talking about it.’ But it’s more planning for success that's usually harder.”

Take a cue from Amazon.

One of the mega-retailer’s key 14 principles is consumer obsession, Bertelsen said. “So for us, what do the consumers want? What are they liking, how can we react to that and what are some problems we can solve for them? Ultimately from an AR strategy perspective, we’ll do a deep dive and say ‘Hey, in the AR space, these are the big use cases, here are some vendors or partners who are really interesting in the space.’”

That’s why having a landscape for emerging technologies like Augmented Reality vs. a straight strategy are just as important for extracting consumer insights. “When it comes to AR, a lot of times brands will look at emerging tech and think, ‘OK we’re gonna do something here.’ But when you or the consumer starts playing with it, the question is ‘Why am I even doing this? What do I get out of it?’ Entertainment is totally fine, entertainment is a great goal. But I think we all have to be honest about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Virtual Reality can be a powerful education tool.

One of Bertelsen’s first projects in her current role at Nestlé USA was a VR pilot with Haagen Dazs, to create an immersive experience around its pollinator sustainability programs. “We have a lot of almond orchards in California, and what a lot of people don’t know is pollinators like our honeybees who pollinate all our vegetables and plants and fruits are actually in very short supply. So every year, every commercial beehive is packed up in a series of trucks and these trucks move across the US and the honeybees are released for about 2 weeks at any given time. This process is obviously very stressful for the honeybees. And this is happening because of something called monoculture. Most farms these days only grow a couple of crops at any given time. I grew up in Chicago in the Midwest, so you always see the alternating corn vs soybean cycles, but those farms are always specializing in one thing. The problem with that is for the honeybees it doesn't have the opportunity to establish a stable home with a diversity of flowers and plants to feed on. So with Haagen Dazs, what we ended up doing was planting hedgerows in these year-long habitats for the honeybees on our almond orchards. What the brand wanted to do was say ‘Hey we have this really amazing story, we think we can educate people on why our pollinators are so important and lift the curtains on how our ice cream is made.’”

Though Nestlé USA has since divested its ice cream portfolio, the pilot was so successful it ended up partnering with both Google and HTC and winning an HTC grant for its alignment with the United Nations’ sustainability initiative that was unveiled at Davos. “It’s still a project I’m extremely proud of,” Bertelsen said. “VR is like a time machine or even a transporter, where you can all of a sudden put yourself in someone else’s shoes literally. It was almost like a bit of ’Magic School Bus’ where we shrunk all of our audience down to the bee and just took them to our almond orchards and showed them what that orchard would look like without pollinators.”

Innovation should go beyond product.

For large food and vegetable CPGs, innovation usually goes to product innovation — what are some new flavors, or new packaging you're developing?” Bertelsain said. “My charter is very clearly digital innovation, my position reports into our CMO. For me, innovation is really about finding new solutions to old problems.

A lot of Bertelsen’s job is focused around identifying real-world applications for emerging tech within Nestlé USA's business. “One of the common frameworks I like to use is the Gartner Hype Cycle. When a new piece of tech comes onto the scene, all of a sudden the tech journalists are all over it, there’s a lot of consulting firms buying search terms around it — think blockchain two year ago. When something is at the peak of the hype cycle, it’s when the general public can imagine the possibilities of what that tech can be. But the reality is, the true use case of the tech is still under developed.”

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