Is the consumer sector seeing the start of an AI investment boom?

By Michael Goodier

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M&A and investment linked to AI has been buoyant in recent years, as have job hiring and patent filings. But is the consumer sector keeping up?

The consumer industry is seeing an increase in artificial intelligence (AI) investment across several key metrics, according to analysis by GlobalData.

AI is gaining an increasing presence across multiple sectors, with top companies completing more AI deals, hiring for more AI roles and mentioning it more frequently in company reports at the start of 2021.

GlobalData’s thematic approach to sector activity seeks to group key company information on hiring, deals, patents by topic to see which companies are best placed to weather the disruptions coming to their industries.

These themes, of which AI is one, are best thought of as “any issue that keeps a CEO awake at night” and, by tracking them, it becomes possible to ascertain which companies are leading the way on specific issues and which are dragging their heels.

According to this method, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Estée Lauder are classed as dominant players in AI in the consumer goods sector, with an additional 13 companies classified as leaders. None of the companies tracked are considered to be vulnerable due to a lack of investment in AI.

One area in which there has been a decrease in AI investment among consumer companies is in the number of deals. GlobalData analysis shows there were 23 AI deals in the consumer sector in the first quarter of 2019. By the first quarter of 2021, that number was 14.

It is also apparent from an analysis of keyword mentions in financial filings that, compared to other tech areas, AI is occupying the minds of consumer companies to a lesser extent than in previous years.

There have been 110 mentions of AI across the filings of the biggest consumer companies so far in 2021, equating to 2.5% of all tech theme mentions. This figure represents a decrease compared to 2016, when AI represented 9.6% of the tech theme mentions in company filings.

However, AI is increasingly fuelling innovation in the consumer sector, particularly in the past six years. There were, on average, 92 consumer patents related to AI granted each year from 2000 to 2014. That figure has risen to an average of 555 patents since then, reaching 1,114 in 2020.

For the latest food sector analysis, visit GlobalData's Consumer Intelligence Centre.