Future-proofing brands in the age of intelligent machines

This article originally appeared on brand-e.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil, a modern Nostradamus, predicted that essential advances in digital pattern recognition and knowledge representation — the key components of intelligence — will make artificial intelligence possible and then commonplace. He argues “the age of intelligent machines” will change all aspects of society as we know it. That technology is here already.

Societal change, however, is not solely based on the availability of new technology. It requires a change in human experience. That consequently requires new methods of creating value and new models of behavior. Just like the industrial revolution required more than the steam engine — people forget steam technology was invented 50 years before the emergence of the world of Oliver Twist. The industrial revolution we are all familiar with firstly needed factories to create an exponential amount of value, then a new working class and urbanization to transform culture and the way we speak, spend and socialize.

Today’s conundrum: will the world of tomorrow be as enamored with consumer culture and brand preference as it has been for the last century? The technology to change this has arrived, but our behavioral patterns have not yet metamorphized into a new way of interacting with our chosen brands.

A notable way that digital technology is transforming behavior is in the use of AI assistants and bots. Google is asserting that being mobile-first is now simply a table stake, and AI-first is the next key differentiator. Instead of customers (who are ultimately susceptible to marketing messages) weighing-up the buying decisions, the purchasing of goods and services will be increasingly delegated to AI assistants that can calculate the smartest purchases based on price, user reviews, and personal data. To bots, it doesn’t matter what ads are showing or what the jingles sound like. Brands losing meaning because of voice-activated smart assistants has been brought up by Harvard Business Review, Wired and Financial Times. The first brands to feel the hit would be undifferentiated goods and services like laundry detergents or electricity providers, which most people would happily let an Alexa or Siri choose on their behalf.

Then again, if brand loyalty is strong enough to bypass the cold parameters of AI assistants, the reward is enormous. Convincing consumers to say “hey Alexa buy more Tide” rather than “hey Alexa buy laundry detergent” is good. However, having Tide as the default setting for laundry detergent is the holy grail. This is exactly the land grab that Tide has already attempted with their Amazon Dash button.

Brands can stand out by understanding what makes people come back to their products and make them a part of their everyday life. In a study by Siegel+Gale, SAP and Shift Thinking published in Harvard Business Review, based on a survey of 5,000 people brands were found to fall into two groups: 1) brands that focus on advocacy and digital experience like Airbnb, Dollar Shave and Venmo (or Monzo in the UK) were seen as “brands that make life easier” and 2) brands, that focus on advertising and the moment of purchase like Hilton, Gillette or HSBC, which were seen as “brands people look up to”. The “usage brands” create demand to use the product through perfecting the experience after the purchase, understanding in detail how people use their products and creating communities around their products, whereas the “purchase brands” create demand through honing their image and messaging pre-purchase to drive more people to buy their products.

By transforming from an image-led business model to an experience-led digital service, a brand can be a permanent fixture of human life — there in the moments when you need it. Simplifying people’s lives and then making those moments of truth happen is the way to future-proof brands before the intelligent machines come marching in.

Erik Mashkilleyson is digital experience director at Siegel+Gale. Follow him on Twitter @mashkilleyson

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