#48: Levi Strauss & Co.’s Dr. Katia Walsh on Using AI and Analytics to Create Cutting-Edge Customer Experiences

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“Every company today is a data and tech company, whether it realizes it or not.”

Your data will never be clean and it will never be perfect. So how do we create meaningful models anyway? As Dr. Katia Walsh puts it, data leaders are facing a “tsunami of data.” But that tsunami shouldn’t stop you from testing, iterating, and moving quickly. Dr. Walsh is the Chief Global Strategy and AI Officer at Levi Strauss & Co. and today she shares how her team has leveraged a mindset of “think big, start small, scale fast” to create cutting-edge data models and digital capabilities quickly. 

Key Insights

What are the 3Cs every business needs to invest in? (4:22)
Building out new digital and AI capabilities is about improving the 3 Cs. Modern business can’t survive without them:

“We talk about using digital data and AI as a capability to create three smarter Cs: 1.) Smarter connections with our consumers 2.) Smarter commerce and 3.) Smarter creation, which is the essence of a company like Levi & Strauss.”

When it comes to customer data, it’s not business, it’s personal. (8:21)
From the recommendations engine on the website to location-based options in-store, to the loyalty rewards customers have access to, Levi Strauss & Co. is creating personalized experiences at every point of the customer journey. 

No two Levi consumers are the same – why should the rewards that we offer in our loyalty program be the same? We use more data than we have ever had in the past and apply machine learning to that data to ensure that we provide an exclusive, fully individualized benefits for each of our individual loyalty program members. So one loyalty program member who is into music would get access to concert tickets. Another loyalty program member who is into fashion trends would get early access to our collaboration… These are just some examples of how for Levi’s consumers, it is not business, it’s all personal. And in fact, we turn these consumers into fans around the world.

Why is it important to think big, but start small, and scale fast? (18:43)
Building “the perfect” model takes time, resources, and buy-in from leadership. But what if your model didn’t need to be perfect and you could demonstrate ROI quickly on a small scale? Katia tells us how they do just that at Levi Strauss & Co..

There’s a model that I found tremendously helpful in my career… and that is think big, start small and scale fast… We want to make sure we focus on both transformative capabilities that may take a little bit longer to materialize, and at the same time also quick wins so that we show that value and gain momentum. Once you gain momentum, you gain champions. And once you gain champions, you gain a following. It becomes a movement throughout the enterprise and you no longer have to do it yourself. You do it together as a whole company.”

Is there no such thing as perfect data? (19:43)

Data is a reflection of the world and the world is messy. Your data will never be clean and it will never be perfect – but that’s okay.

You cannot stop data by definition. If you’re trying to make it clean, you have to stop it. That’s just not possible. It’s a tsunami of data… [For example, in 2020], when we gathered data and created price elasticity models and applied machine learning, we realized that consumers in most cases would pay full price because of the strength of the brand… and because we did that, we were able to not discount, to charge full price, and also get to consumers what they needed when they needed that. So it was truly a win-win and it helped us emerge from the crisis that we all faced even healthy as a company than we have been before. Did we wait for the perfect data? No. Did we wait for even the perfect models? No. Did we make sure that we solve the problem right when we needed it? Yes, absolutely. And we do this all the time across the company.”

Data literacy is a mindset. (30:36)

Your organization’s next data champion or data leader may not come from the background you’d expect. Katia tells us how journalists, stylists, and store managers are all making for great data scientists with the right training and right mindset.

People in this field can come from all walks of life and backgrounds… It’s really about the mindset of problem solving, curiosity and lifelong learning. Once we had this revelation, we actually applied that at Levi & Strauss to train employees around the world in machine learning… We have people who come from design, people who manage stores, stylists, people in finance, and in HR that are now trained in Python and machine learning and agile ways of working. And they are the biggest champions of digital transformation throughout the world of Levi’s.”


About Dr. Katia Walsh

Dr. Katia Walsh leads strategy, data, analytics and artificial intelligence at LS&Co. She focuses on setting the company’s holistic digital and corporate strategy and infusing it with data, analytic, and artificial intelligence capabilities to drive business value across LS&Co. globally. The impact ranges from innovation incubation to strategic growth initiatives, new business models and new ways of working.

Katia has more than 20 years of cross-industry experience combining strategy, data, analytics and machine learning, and a track record of making global brands indispensable to their customers through these capabilities.

Katia holds a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia in Strategic Communication with a specialization in quantitative methodology.

Get even more insights from data and analytics leaders like Katia on The Data Chief.  

Episode 51