robot

As robots rise, will brands falter?

By Howard Belk

Technology innovations like VR and AI are exciting and open up new frontiers for brand experiences and consumer interactions. In this piece, Siegel+Gale co-CEO and chief creative officer, Howard Belk, with the help of brand leaders from SAP, Vonage and StitchFix, reminds brand-builders to keep humanity—and purpose—at the core of technology adoption.  


In the 1960s, The Jetsons introduced us to the family of the future. Twenty-five years later, Marty McFly zipped through time in a souped-up DeLorean. Today, these fantasies don’t seem far off. While we aren’t yet able to jump in our cars and travel back thirty years, we can readily don a headset and fully immerse in whatever time period we desire.

As robots and automated technology become ubiquitous in our lives, the role of Brand is challenged. Machine-led experiences are becoming commonplace, and convenience has become the marketplace of the future. How can brands maintain relevance in a world of automated response and anonymous interactions?

After speaking about the notion of Robots + Brands at SXSW, I was inspired to ask a number of CMO’s about the challenges and opportunities brands are presented with by robots, bots, AI, machine learning and automation. In many cases, the answer lies in simplicity. Brands that anchor themselves in a core truth will win in today’s technology-first world.


Brands cannot be technology-driven. Ideas and experiences still matter.

Technology-led experiences are most genuine when the brand is leveraged to set guardrails for the experience. The technology can change, the interfaces can change, but the fundamentals ought to stay the same.

What does your brand promise? What it is here to help accomplish? Once companies reach parity in technology and customer experience, anchoring your brand to one clear idea becomes critically important. Everlane, a San Francisco-based clothing retailer, has built a brand around Radical Transparency. This ethos guides their decisions on where to source materials, what factories to partner with, and how they communicate with customers.

Their purpose is what enables them to stand out, and it is easy to imagine a world where technology enables them to further their purpose. Virtual Reality represents a unique opportunity to bring consumers into their factories and show the reality of ethical manufacturing. With this, Everlane becomes an ambassador for empathy, and they leverage a clear brand idea to guide these technology-led interactions.


Brands must deliver on customer-first in new ways.

An automated future forces brands to reimagine customer engagement. How can a brand create one consistent experience across form factors? How can we leverage technology to elevate the end-user?

Branded voice-only interactions on Alexa and Google Home can strip away the holistic identity of a brand. All that remains is voice. In a world where conversation is often the currency between consumer and business, brands must be diligent. They need to leverage technology in ways that are meaningfully aligned to the brand and to the interaction and building experiences that start with the end-user.  

“Critical to experience is conversation, and the conversations brands have with customers. Let’s use that as the first thing we’re thinking about and optimizing, and then think about how we can leverage technology to optimize these conversations,” explains Rishi Dave, CMO of Vonage.


Can bots help humans be more human?

If brands are to become champions of humanity, they must enable more of what makes us human—to facilitate the connections and relationships and empathy that is us at our best and most fulfilled. To deliver on our higher-order needs like self-esteem and self-actualization. This implies a genuine relationship built upon compassion and understanding, rather than transactional relationships enabled by data and reliant on “borrowed” information.

Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP, believes technology is meant to amplify and orient human-first experiences, rather than automate them, “Technology brings you unprecedented levels of data analytics. This allows you to get closer to your customers because it helps you understand their sentiment, feelings, needs, wants—if you can embrace that, it allows companies to evolve and truly become experience brands.”

One emerging fashion brand that taps into user analytics is Stitch Fix—a personal style service that evolves with individual needs and preferences. Their business model benefits from algorithms on a daily, customer-by-customer basis. They’ve built a brand on the promise that your data will be used to your personal advantage, rather than to the advantage of the business. “The copacetic relationship we have with our clients only works if they get value from us. There’s no ‘selling’ here—only relevancy,” says Eric Colson, Chief Algorithms Officer.

Ultimately, the more technology-forward our lives become, the more empathy and creativity become distinguishing factors in our lives. “There needs to be a balance— yes, we ought to automate tasks that are best served by automating capabilities but do so with the intention of freeing up humans to build relationships that matter,” says Tillman. Now more than ever, brands must elevate their purpose and champion that which makes us human.

Key steps for brands when leveraging technology innovation

  1. Build: Develop a brand that builds from a compelling and creative core idea.
  2. Govern: Leverage your brand as a filter for business decisions, be they technology-led or not. Use brand as a tool to spark innovation.   
  3. Execute: Relentlessly commit. Stay consistent across touchpoints and interfaces.
  4. Elevate: Focus on maintaining humanity. Commit to a purposeful promise and build relationships that matter.

By Howard Belk is co-CEO and chief creative officer, Siegel+Gale. This piece appeared in issue 3 of Marketing Society members-only publication, EMPOWER.


This article was taken from issue 3 of Marketing Society members-only publication EMPOWER. Find out more here and see past articles here (please note some articles are open to the public and some are for members only.)