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Can Artificial Intelligence Make Visionary Brands?

By Sunny Bonnell
Posted on 12/02/23
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Oh, artificial intelligence, you rascal. Since ChatGPT launched last May, we’ve been subjected to endless, breathless hype about what you can do and all the ways you’re going to turn the world upside down.

The things you can do include:

  • Acting as voice-controlled virtual assistants
  • Recommending purchases on platforms like Amazon
  • Detecting financial fraud
  • Guiding autonomous cars (this one, not so well just yet)
  • Running customer service chatbots
  • Handling facial recognition for law enforcement

And, of course, writing copy, the application that launched a thousand college English department ulcers as professors worry about their students using AI to write term papers instead of cheating the old-fashioned way. But in the creative world, the world of brands and branding, a debate has been raging: Could AI replace creative directors and brand managers in developing winning, awesome, company-changing brands?

Creative directors, you can stop threatening to throw your Keurig machine out the window. Brand managers, you can climb out from the under-desk fort you built from wastebaskets and reams of printer paper. The debate actually starts now. Because while AI is great at repetitive tasks, and could even make brand building easier and cheaper, it can’t seemingly replace creative minds and bang out passionate visionaries. Sorry, AI.

AI is Great at Repetition

But humans aren’t. Ambiguity, ideas that come out of nowhere, happy accidents that spark brainstorms…those are where we eat. Many of our greatest brands spring from hypotheticals, random thought bubbles that cause two adjacent synapses to simultaneously fire, or sometimes, pure mischief. AI doesn’t speak that language.

“Many brands spring from hypotheticals, random thought bubbles that cause two adjacent synapses to fire in unison, or sometimes, pure mischief.”
Sunny Bonnell, Co-founder & CEO, Motto®

A Tale of Two Friends

Take Casamigos Tequila as one example. The company was founded by actor George Clooney and his pal, Rande Gerber, but initially they didn’t intend it to be consumer brand at all. They simply wanted to create an artisan tequila they could knock back all day when they were in Mexico without the, er—aftereffects. But when their distiller told them they had to become licensed in order to keep making so much hooch, they launched a brand. Could AI have created a billion-dollar brand built around the easygoing friendship of two guys who liked to drink and hang in Cabo? Not likely.

AI Can’t Count to Fish

The reason AI cannot replace human creatives, designers and strategists in branding is simple: Artificial intelligence can’t make intuitive leaps. It processes ungodly amounts of data, sure, but in a linear fashion. AI is brilliant at hoovering up yottabytes of verbiage and then, when prompted, making linear predictions about what comes next based on what came before. It’s simple logic: 2 + 2 = 4.

That’s why AI is so good at writing serviceable copy, pulling together data, or making creepily prescient online buying recommendations. It teases patterns out of mountains of past actions and information, draws inferences about those patterns, and turns those inferences into ideas, suggestions, and conclusions. But when there’s no chain of connected data to draw on, there are no patterns to analyze.

The math looks like this:

2 + 2 = Fish

Or if you want something more dramatic, think about the infamous Apple “1984” TV spot. It’s legendary, in part because it only ran once, but also because of its totalitarian imagery and message of liberation from conformity. We can’t imagine a logical, conservative AI algorithm coming up with something as edgy and daring for a computer brand. Apple’s seminal ad worked because it leveraged something else that AI doesn’t get: Emotion.

Not Great at Connecting Dots

Artificial intelligence also isn’t very good at capitalizing on surprises because, by definition, they come out of nowhere. Again, AI is a prediction engine, and if there’s nothing to base a prediction, it’s stumped. Humans, OTOH, are great at making hay out of random chance. Take, for example, the fallout from the monster 2003 hit “Hey Ya” by OutKast, the earworm that told us, repeatedly, to “Shake it like a Polaroid picture.” Well, Polaroid had declared bankruptcy in 2001, but the company’s branding team knew a great thing when they saw it. Right away, they hired the ad agency Euro RSCG to sponsor parties for OutKast where they distributed Polaroid cameras, and paid the two artists in OutKast to hold Polaroid cameras during some of their performances. The gambit worked: Polaroid’s public image and sales were boosted by the song. Even though the bump was temporary (the company filed for BK again in 2008), this stands as another example of people acting in ways AI just can’t.

“Artificial intelligence also isn’t very good at capitalizing on surprises because, by definition, they come out of nowhere.”
Sunny Bonnell, Co-founder & CEO, Motto®

What AI Can Do

You could say that artificial intelligence lacks the “crazy code” that lets the best creatives and brand strategists pull epic ideas out of thin air and provoke and seduce with such dexterity. We know our people, after all. But that’s not to say AI is useless in the branding realm. Once humans intuit wild ideas and apply creative magic to develop them, artificial intelligence could prove valuable in developing branding strategy.

This is because strategic plans are, for the most part, linear and somewhat predictable. For instance, back when Procter & Gamble wanted to revive the outdated, comatose Old Spice brand, they quickly became known for the wonderful 2010 “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” TV ad campaign starring Isaiah Mustafa. But before those great ads ever ran, P&G had followed a brand reinvention strategy that was predictable and effective. They expanded the product line to include washes and deodorants and handed out free samples and swag at school health classes, high school sports games, and skate-park events. It’s not hard to imagine an AI bot cranking out a strategic plan like that—at least, a solid first draft that humans would tweak.

So, perhaps there’s a way that creatives and our future silicon masters can coexist in the ad agency bullpen or the corporate branding department. We have to remember what each brain is especially good at. Humans are good at synthesizing memes, old Beavis and Butt-Head episodes, and cultural zeitgeist into the weird and wonderful. AI is all about drawing conclusions and mapping the next steps. We can see it being great for building budgets, determining target media lists, assembling to-do lists, and the like—freeing humans from grunt work, as it was designed to do. Can it make visionary brands? Not yet.

Sunny Bonnell profile picture
By Sunny Bonnell
Founder & CEO Motto®