Lessons from IBM’s Watson powered lunch truck at SxSW


Watson can churn out more than a million never before prepared recipes if you give it a key ingredient and a region of the world

It’s a Peruvian Potato Poutine. Only unlike a typical Canadian poutine — potatoes topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce and cheese curds — this one had tomatoes, cauliflower, onions and cumin. Yes, cumin.

How did that happen? Watson. As in IBM’s Watson. Using his vast database of food qualities, chemical knowhow and, dare we say, creativity, the big-brained computer thought it up.

Watson, who first made headlines with its win on Jeopardy, was at it again at SxSW, delighting hundreds of people with two new recipes every day. The computer can’t actually cook, but it knows how unexpected ingredient combinations will taste, even predicting whether you’ll find its concoctions pleasant, familiar or surprising.

“It came up with combinations and ingredients I’d never imagine myself,” said James Briscione, the director of culinary development at the Institute of Culinary Education, IBM’s partner in the project. But they worked. My Poutine was excellent. And definitely more interesting, complex and multi-textured than the original.

At SxSW, IBM crowdsourced a daily request via Twitter. The throngs decided what they wanted to eat as a main ingredient the next day. ICE chefs then picked a region and cooking time and Watson delivered all the ingredients;  many of which had never before been united in the same recipe.

We know that Watson can crunch numbers, identify patterns, predict outcomes. But IBM wanted to prove that Watson can also be creative. And in the future even more useful. With its vast knowledge of ingredients, chemical makeup, calories, texture and flavors, maybe Watson will be the means to better nutrition, or allergy management, or more effective dieting.


With IBM’s Marco Pereira at the popular Watson powered lunch truck.

But let’s look at the Watson food truck from another perspective. That of marketing. For that’s what really made this effort creative. It took an experience, mixed in some crowdsourcing, added a dash of social media and served up a perfectly prepared case study in how to generate awareness and participation.

Think about it. Watson is a computing system that IBM built to apply advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies for the field of open domain question answering. Not all that exciting as marketing fodder.

And this is a company that used to be called Big Blue; it was safe, corporate, boring and populated by engineers who wore short sleeve dress shirts. Now look at them. They win awards at Cannes for functional outdoor boards. They use social media as or more effectively than almost any other major corporation. And they bring lunch trucks to SxSW.

Quick lesson for any marketer wanting to generate attention, drive awareness or capture our imagination.

1. Do something.

And make sure that it’s both interesting and either useful or entertaining. Feeding people at SxSW satisfied both of those criteria.

2. Make it interesting.

Who isn’t fascinated by the idea that a computer might actually come up with a better — or at least more interesting — recipe than a trained chef?

3.  Make it contextual.

Lunch trucks in Austin are part of the cultural landscape. And tech, data, creativity and social media are what the conference is all about.

4. Invite participation.

The cognitive cooking canteen asked users to pick ingredients, allowed voting via hashtags, and promoted sharing in the form of tweets, photos, and numerous social shares.

5. Tell the story.

IBM had this one figured out. Everyone from Popular Mechanics to Fox News covered the event and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me even had it as a question on Bluff the Listener.

If someone had told me five or 10 years ago that IBM would be one of the coolest marketers on the planet, I’d have thought they were crazy.

News Flash: IBM’s marketing team comes to Boston University in two weeks to share all the ways in which they’re leveraging Watson to market the company. Should be a great show.