What a Chatbot Can Teach You -- and Unilever -- About Hair

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Credit: Nexxus
Launched by late hairstylist and entrepreneur Jheri Redding in 1979, Nexxus could use some updating in a category where new-product churn is accelerating. Nexxus, now owned by Unilever, has declined in recent years despite a 2005 expansion from salons to mass retail that brought more distribution, but arguably less professional cachet. Nexxus sells for more than twice per ounce what many mass brands cost, while hundreds of new salon and mass hair products hit the market each year, intensifying competition. And none of that has actually improved how people feel about their hair. "We know the vast majority of women are dissatisfied with their hair, and it's getting worse," said Global Brand Director Jessica Grigoriou. "In one study, only 11% of women were satisfied with their hair. And couple that with the hair-care category, which is complex and can be really difficult to navigate and shop."

Enter the Hair Concierge, a chatbot launched on Facebook Messenger in November that uses artificial intelligence to answer women's questions about how to solve hair problems, and links them to Nexxus products they can buy direct online within the bot. The virtual Hair Concierge spawned more than 450,000 messages, around eight per conversation, during January alone, Ms. Grigoriou said. And that comes just from influencers, social sharing and word of mouth, before the brand has put any conventional paid media support behind the effort, which was led by new digital agency Cubocc. It's a new idea with roots deep in Nexxus' heritage. From Mr. Redding's day on, the brand was about using proteins found in nature to improve hair. Things like heat and ultraviolet radiation exposure deplete those proteins, leading to a range of hair problems, such as dullness, frizz and split ends. "We can actually map the DNA of the hair, identifying which ingredients can deliver the best results for each problem," she said. The Hair Concierge is part of a broader digital revamp for Nexxus, which aims to offer "mass customization" by matching existing products to women's stated needs. The effort also includes a redesign of Nexxus.com to align with how women search online and a series of 30-second-or-shorter, mobile-optimized videos matching Nexxus products to various hairstyles or problems.

"One thing we're seeing online is regimen building," Ms. Grigoriou said. "Women are buying styling products along with shampoo and conditioner. So we find the ability to talk one-on-one with the Hair Concierge to provide more information is a way to build the regimen." E-commerce could be seen as the third wave of retail distribution for Nexxus beyond salons or mass retail. And the brand isn't exactly discouraging that, currently offering $10 off a $50 purchase through its site. But physical stores and other online retailers will remain the key channel for Nexxus, so using the revamped online effort to help that is crucial. "This is a way to test and learn what's interesting, what are the product combos purchased together, so we could perhaps create a customized gift pack for stores," Ms. Grigoriou said. Besides offering online fulfillment, the Hair Concierge also links to a store locator to find products.

The Hair Concierge "continues to get exponential growth without any paid media," Ms. Grigoriou said. Ultimately, the brand probably will put paid media behind it, but organic growth is sufficient for now. The brand is also hoping for success from its latest line, dubbed City Shield, to appeal to an increasingly urban U.S. population. Among other things, it has a protein derived from lotus flowers in India that guards hair against the effect of humidity. Beyond that, the issues raised by women using the Hair Concierge could help Nexxus develop the next set of products to meet their needs.
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