Despite the millions of ways social media was supposed to make life simpler and more convenient, retailers have long since found that it’s not the selling playground that they once imagined it to be. More often than not, brands are running afoul of their shoppers’ preferences rather than delivering on them, and every once in a while, the wires become crossed enough for one side to take moral offense to ad campaigns or business decisions.
And then comes social media’s version of an angry mob with pitchforks and torches: the boycott.
Target is embroiled in one of its own at the moment, after its decision not to bar transgender shoppers from using its bathrooms and angering a contingent of conservative-minded consumers who quickly took to the internet to sound their rage off of each other like an echo chamber. Nominally begun by the American Family Association, the boycott has persisted for the better part of two months now, forcing even the CEO of Target himself to address the potential effect of the boycott on sales.
“To date we have not seen a material or measurable impact on our business,” CEO Brian Cornell told Fortune. “Just a handful of stores across the country have seen some activity and have been impacted.”
To be fair, “some activity” that leaves some stores “impacted” isn’t the worst possible damage Target could’ve expected. However, it’s more than the merchant probably bargained for and more than it’s willing to deal with in a period where its sales numbers are losing the lift that carried it through the last few quarters.
Which is all to say: Maybe the idea of an artificial intelligence that can predict sensitive issues for various consumer demographics is a little out there, but as far as Qloo is concerned, it’s becoming more of a necessity every day.
Backed by a menagerie of investors, from Starwood Hotels Founder Barry Sternlicht to one-time Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio, Qloo bills itself as a “cultural recommendation engine,” which is a fancy way of describing its comparative process to uncover similar preferences across different cultural groups, TechCrunch reported. The most prevalent example of Qloo’s method might be in the guidance it can give to advertisers looking to buy time during primetime sports games. The two fan bases involved might have very strong opinions on one another and may also bring in other cultural notions by virtue of their geography. However, in the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors facing off in the NBA Finals, it was Qloo that found both fan bases love pizza, SportsCenter, Nike and Adidas.
“[Qloo was] one of the early companies that realized the value of collecting and analyzing Big Data for culture and entertainment,” investor Adriaan Ligtenberg told TechCrunch. “AI companies allow Big Data-driven business decisions; the insights gained are valuable, for either opening new or optimizing revenue streams.”
It’s no insight into the cultural milieu around bathroom policies, but if AI engines like Qloo can guide retailers away from the rocky shoals of public opinion — or, at least, steer them away from a direct collision course — the benefits might be too good to ignore.
Target’s domestic boycott troubles are nothing entirely new to retailers, but as cross-border commerce brings more brands in contact with consumer populations whose cultural circumstances merchants lack a native comprehension of, the risk of inadvertently offensive marketing materials or sales promotions nearly approaches one. Case in point: French-based L’Oréal is in hot water with Chinese shoppers after rescinding support for a concert featuring an artist who was the subject of critical comments made by a state-backed newspaper — comments that most consumers saw as coming from nothing more than a tabloid.
Now, L’Oréal finds itself attached to the kind of pro-self-censorship, pro-state media image that makes it hard to sell makeup and hair products.