Business

TALKING SHOP

For this startup, selling is all about the image

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff illustration

For as long as they’ve been making and selling stuff, companies have tried to worm their brands into customers’ brains. They hire trend-trackers and influencers to help inspire new products, and bring in research and development teams to test product designs with customers. 

But when it comes time to actually release images of a new product into the wild, decisions are typically made by a creative team, which tends to rely on gut feelings to determine what it thinks will resonate with customers. 

A Boston-based startup called Adhark wants to offer an alternative. The company, which was a MassChallenge finalist last year, uses artificial intelligence to determine what images will test best with different demographics. Its patented algorithms attempt to create a dataset from the subconscious decisions that influence our purchase patterns, measuring things that might be difficult for a customer to quantify on their own. Adhark asks questions like: What is it about an image that speaks to you? What part of your brain makes you pick the floral print over the plaid? 

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“Imagery is the biggest data in the world, but we have the least insight into it,” says the company’s founder, Boston University grad Jehan Hamedi, who worked at an analytics firm doing text analysis for years before turning his attention to images.

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Adhark’s tech team has created what Hamedi calls a “design sense,” by analyzing companies’ product photos as well as images of products being shared through social media by brand influencers. Based on how well the test images align with demographic data, the system creates an “I-Score,” giving brands the ability to predict how that image will appeal to certain consumer audiences, Hamedi says.

Say, for example, that a brand wants to use the new Pantone color of the year in its packaging — this year’s color is Ultra Violet — Adhark can weigh in on the design, telling a company which color combinations will work best for its target customers. In some cases, it might suggest a different color altogether. 

“You can see through the eyes of your audience in real time,” Hamedi says. 

The company is currently working with major food and beverage brands to help assess images of their new products. “For fast-moving consumer goods, the most important way to drive and convert [brand] switchers is through visual appeal,” Hamedi says, noting that online shoppers are more influenced by images than the reviews, ratings, or writeups that accompany them. Companies want to know things like, “What is going to make somebody stop and grab it?” he says. “You have to get at the subconscious preference.” 

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The service has the potential to save brands significant money and time that might otherwise be spent developing and testing products, says Luke Mansfield, who worked with Adhark while he was vice president of innovation at PepsiCo. (PepsiCo is one of the sponsors of MassChallenge, and hired Adhark after seeing a demo of its product.)

“Artificial intelligence has potential to upend the way that billion-dollar brands do marketing and gain insight,” Mansfield says. “What Adhark reveals in minutes could save PepsiCo millions . . . It’s a game changer.” 

As a example of what the technology can do, Adhark scanned each of the Boston Marathon tribute shoes released by five major sneaker brands in advance of this year’s race: New Balance, Asics, Saucony, Brooks, and Adidas. The Adhark system compared promotional photos from each of the brands to determine which running shoes would appeal most to specific demographic groups. Here’s a quick rundown of what it found: 

New Balance’s 890v6 Boston, a sleek-looking navy blue sneaker with teal stripes, seemed to be the overall winner, image-wise. The look of the shoe scored highest across all demographics, making it the most appealing to the general population. 

The New Balance shoe also performed best among baby boomers, as both men and women of that age group seem primed to respond to the design. The Adizero Boston 7 from Adidas, a royal blue shoe with the Boston Marathon’s yellow unicorn logo on the heel, was the second choice among boomer men and women. 

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Asics’ Nimbus 20 Boston is yet another blue shoe. Its bright shade of teal has “BOSTON” printed along the side in white letters. This shoe resonates most with millennials, as the images won out both men and women in that demographic, “an incredible feat,” according to Hamedi. 

Brooks’ Boston Launch 5 entry, is, you guessed it, also blue, and attempts to adopt a nautical theme to match the city. The shoe’s royal blue-colored body is marked with yellow anchors, and its white sole is bedecked in blue lobsters. The shoe wasn’t a big winner across any category. 

Saucony’s Boston Marathon offering stands out for many reasons: It’s not blue, for one, but it’s also an interesting choice for a company associated with fitness. The company partnered with Canton-based Dunkin’ Donuts to make the “Dunkin Kinvara 9,” a sneaker that borrows the coffee chain’s signature pink and orange color palette, with the image of a strawberry-frosted doughnut printed on the heel, and sprinkles flecked across the body of the shoe. 

Somewhat surprisingly, images of the Dunkin’ shoe tended to perform best among runners. Perhaps the thought of passing a foe, then taunting them with a doughnut on their heel, is the kind of motivation some athletes need?

Hamedi doesn’t reveal the science behind his product — that’s part of his intellectual property — so he doesn’t answer such questions. “The AI doesn’t know what Dunkin’ Donuts is . . . it just knows combinations and features,” he says. But, he adds, it will know “if they’re creating a shoe that a runner is going to reach out and grab.” 

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.