Let’s Build Brands Not Robots

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By Trace Cohen, Co-Founder and Head of Strategy of B R A I V E

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is hard at work for businesses across the globe, making life better, faster, and smoother for customers. Marketers are awash in tools that optimize media spend, spot early trends, and tailor timed messages (“the temperature is down, need a hot chocolate with that order?”). And while customers might be basking in the joys of faster bookings, hotter hamburgers, and cutting-edge fashion, the question marketers need to ask is whether any of this is building deeper love for the brand?

As AI fast becomes table stakes, it’s time to differentiate. The year is 2020, people. We are living through a time of dis-ease, distrust, disconnect, and disruption. In a world of hurt, we need to lead with heart. Robotic speeds and optimized feeds are not necessarily what is top priority right now. And now that people en masse have woken up with fright to the fact that their Facebook is only free because they’re being sold to the highest bidder as data (thanks to Netflix’s “Social Dilemma”), they’re in even greater need of familiar faces they can trust.

It’s long been established that customers are looking to brands for more than what they offer, but why they do it, that they offer loyalty to brands that are both purposeful and values-aligned. Marketers have spent billions imbuing their brands with a soul, a personality, and a meaningful voice. Yet AI is being put to the task of solving operational challenges, rather than taking on the more meaningful role a brand is so well-prepped to play. If ever there was a technology to bring a brand to life, AI is it.

I’m not talking about giving your chatbot a name or infusing it with the tone and voice of your brand (sure, that might have a place, but please don’t let Connie the concierge robot be your brand legacy). I’m talking about using AI to build brand-first experiences that are true to its DNA and that allow your brand to emerge as the distinguished entity it is.

As CEO James Briggs recently put it at a #blackandbrilliant seminar, “AI is too important to be left to engineers alone.” Think back most recently to the first forays of websites and social media pages, where CTOs would build sales-focused, brand-agnostic, template-based UIs. These early models could facilitate transactions but did little to scale brand narratives.

There are three factors that marketers need to address in building a brand-aligned AI experience:

  • Always use the brand’s purpose as a lens to build strategy. Don’t focus on what AI can do, focus on what the brand should do. Loyal customers love what your brand stands for and expect it will stay close to its core. New customers will be drawn to it for the same reasons. Start with ideas that are brand-relevant and then engage your tech teams with meaningful briefs to make your ideas real.
  • As Dr. Seuss might have put it, “there’s no one alive more youer than you.” The onus is on marketers to define not just what the brand says, but how it should behave in an AI world. For good reason, there’s been a backlash against female-named bots that talk in subservient ways, and a recognition of the need to deploy culturally and contextually relevant interactions that serve to engender, rather than alienate, brand communities.
  • Take a deep look at your brand community which, as always, includes employees, stakeholders, partners, customers, and longtime fans. In particular, look at the myriad of ways they are hurting right now. Here is where we need human-centered design principles to focus on their needs. Understand their concerns, then prototype, test, and iterate until you get to truly insightful tools that meet their needs for connection, information, insights, and, dare we say, delight. AI is here to learn from the collective intelligence of your people, and then offer them something deeply meaningful and useful in return.

Marketers have spent too many years marveling at what technology can do and handing strategy to those they put on a pedestal as domain experts. It’s time that marketers start realizing the unique value of their own expertise, leading with the brand and challenging technologists to make it real. This is where marketers have always excelled and it’s where we will again.

We are at a crossroads where we have consumers looking for brands that are purpose-driven and authentic, while businesses are increasingly relying on algorithms and data. Both have a role in service of your purpose, personality, and people. Focus your brand on making AI more robotic, and the brand will emerge lifelessly. Or take the courageous path, market with heart and your brand will evolve to its rightful role in service of humanity.

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