Brand vs. AI

How disruptive technologies will shake, but not break, our enduring bond with brands.

Brands have penetrated our culture like never before. But will they keep their role in the face of the technological disruption about to sweep through the business landscape?

We argue that the brands that we use to simplify and navigate will die, while the brands that we choose to believe in and belong to can thrive even more. There has never been so much opportunity for brands to create new value, but only if they are carefully positioned.

Simplify, believe and belong

To look forward and make bold predictions about how brands will respond to the wave of disruptive technology, we need to look back and recognize the relationship we have developed with brands in our culture. What makes people tattoo brands on their bodies? Why did two adults attempt to name their child Nutella (stopped only by their government)?

We have formed these deep bonds with brands because they have learned to represent things in a way that meets three basic human needs: to simplify the frenetic world around us; to believe in something bigger than what is in front of us; and to belong to a group beyond our family.

We need these things, and always have. And we have gone to many sources to get these needs fulfilled: to cultural icons, political movements, sports teams, faith groups, nations, battalions. Until recently, we didn’t turn to the commercial world.

But today’s brands have learned to respond directly to these needs, satisfying us in ways they never had before. They draw on people’s allegiances as strongly as other cultural groups do. And we’ve responded by letting them into our homes, lives and selves.

Is this a phenomenon at its peak, about to be displaced by the rational digital world of radical transparency and customer reviews? Or is the emotional constant that we will cling on to, as we ride the turmoil of digital disruption?

‘Simplify’ brands will become unseen commodities

Nearly two millennia after it was baked in A.D. 79, a loaf of miraculously preserved bread was recovered from the ruins of Pompeii. The ancient bread had a familiar symbol: a logo. The “bread stamp” named the baker and served as a visible commitment to quality, authenticity and accountability. Many brands today still serve a similar role—the engine will run better because it’s STP, the ink will last longer because it’s Epson.

But what happens when the car buys its own motor oil? When the printer picks its own ink? These science-fiction-sounding scenarios are right around the corner.

The rise of artificial intelligence and connected devices means that many of our things will be able to act on our behalf, each with its own internal “Alexa” deciding based on a database of quantified performance. The robots won’t need brands, they’ll have metrics. What will “brand” mean in an era of automated decision-making?

Even the purchases still left to us will likely not need abstract indicators of quality like “brand.” Already, we see ourselves more willing to buy an unfamiliar brand on Amazon if it comes with a five-star rating. Ratings will soon apply to everything from bed sheets to resume bios. In this transparent, scored reality, we won’t need to see “Charmin” to know if it’s soft—we’ll have a softness indicator collected from the crowdsourced insight of thousands of users.

What will “brand” mean in an era of perfect information?

‘Believe’ and ‘belong’ brands will become essential, beloved tribes

Brands will not go away, though—far from it. Their role in our lives may very well deepen and extend.

Our digital existence brings connected transparency: we share more, companies monitor more, everyone sees more. If everyone sees the brands we interact with, brand becomes an even more important tool for self-expression.

Furthermore, as traditional communities of place decline in a globalized, connected economy, we see more and more customers turning to companies to fulfill a sense of belonging. In a transparent connected world, the brands you believe in and belong to are seen by all and matter even more.

Thankfully, the future brings new opportunities to forge these customer connections. Customers can be reached at all times, thanks to ubiquitous internet and 5G speeds. There are whole new modes of connection, thanks to virtual and augmented reality.

How are you using today’s communication tools to create tribes for customers to believe in and belong to?

  • Let customers in to co-create and contribute their own value: The platform revolution—from Zipcar to BlaBlaCar, eBay to Etsy, Flickr to Prosper—has taught companies that we don’t need to create all the value, but we can form deep personal connections by simply providing the platform for customers to exchange value.
  • Commit to outcome excellence, not process excellence: In an automated world, process excellence will be a moot point. In a tracked, transparent and quantified world, outcome excellence will be a measurable result. In a future of personalized medicine, our pills could promise improvements. In a future of measured emotions, our shoe purchase could promise a happiness boost.
  • Align yourself to a shared value, not a product benefit: Method did it for dish soap and Dollar Shave Club did it for razors, proving that even in the most commoditized categories, customers can form an emotional connection based on a higher-order value. Tribes form around values, not products.
  • Complete a production run of one: Increasingly, customers are becoming the deities of our connected kingdoms, ruling over what we see and what we experience with more and more minute control. Whether it’s shoes from NikeID, clothes from MTailor or loans from Kreditech, customers are attaching to the things that are made by them and for them. It’s easy to believe in something you created.
  • Find the emotion in all realities: Even in today’s digital age, we often rely on in-person interaction to form the intimate human connection. The first brands to figure out how to win hearts and minds in virtual reality will win wallets, too. There is no Trader Joe’s of virtual reality yet, and the entire emotional experience in blended realities is up for grabs.

Our enduring bond with brands

For some brands, technology-driven trends are a serious threat. If you’re a decision-making shortcut that simplifies lives by being a marker of quality, you’re at serious risk.

But for all brands, these technology-driven trends introduce a new world full of opportunities to form deep emotional connections with customers. We may not need brands as we once did, to prove the bread is fresh or the oil is good. But we will always want something to believe in and something to belong to. If brands help us do that, we will still want them.

Dan Clay is a senior associate at creative consultancy Lippincott.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.