Imagine a future in which machines take over all our repetitive tasks, whether they are physical or intellectual. Hold on a minute … that is not the future: this is today!
Even though we love to say that we are living in the “Age of the connected consumer”, stressing human centricity in whatever happens around us, many of our actions and decisions are actually either run or aided by technology. Think about the information we receive from our GPS while driving our car, geo-localized weather forecast services we receive while traveling, and the “you might also like” recommendations we receive as we shop online. The list goes on.
The future lies more and more in our virtual assistants taking over decision making and acting on our behalf. Google Assistant, Alexa, Siri, Cortana and several other AI-powered assistants are all live and learning what we do and what we like. There is also the numerous IBM Watson-based apps, including chatbots. They continuously learn from our personal databases of affinities and intents, which we feed through our Facebook and Google activity. They will soon know and predict our tastes and intentions better than we can do, to the point that we will delegate to them to make most of our purchasing decisions for us, to save ourselves the time and effort. Sounds scary? Actually, it is not, as long as marketers and consumers can clearly see how the AI algorithms these machines are implementing do their work. We need to see how are they trained and improved, and whether they can be held accountable for their mistakes.
The European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation, which is expected to take effect in 2018, will create a “right to explanation”, allowing consumers to object to any decision affecting them that has been made purely on an algorithmic basis.
In such a context it comes as no surprise that, in the BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands 2017, the top five spots are occupied by digital giants who are massively investing in AI and memorable customer experiences. They are: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. But can non-digital brands – such as the 30 names that make this inaugural Italian BrandZ ranking – thrive in the age of algorithms? Make no mistake, the answer is: yes they can, by providing their customers with memorable brand experiences.
Here we come back to human centricity: putting consumers’ emotions at the center of a brand experience that is so distinctive, frictionless and emotionally sound that it generates preference, use and a “loyalty loop”. Nowadays, customer service is the new marketing, because a pleasant interaction with a human customer service rep - or even with an increasingly empathetic chatbot - in any “moment of truth” will subconsciously link a brand with positive associations in the mind of the consumer. At the next moment of need, the consumer’s brain will automatically activate its repurchasing cycle. And the more consumers engage positively with a brand - not only by consuming its products or services but also through being emotionally assisted at related touchpoints - the more this will happen. Whether it is the human brain or AI algorithms, or both working together, a database of affinities and intents will trigger purchase decisions along a hybrid machine-human customer journey.
But what will be the role of advertising in such a technology-driven context? Today’s mantra for most advertisers is to be “always on” and particularly to advertise – mainly through digital media – closer to the moment of purchase. However, research shows that “call to action” advertising at the point of purchase often makes people focus on price and compare product features. But as part of the overall brand experience, advertising can play a key role in building long-lasting memories, as well as sparking in-the-moment reactions. People feel less manipulated by advertising experienced far from the moment of purchase, and if they appreciate its content and creativity, this will build positive memories and impressions that will have an impact on their future purchasing decisions. The most effective ads are those that leave a lasting impression, which people want to engage with and share via social media.
In a future world where so many of our decisions will be automated, will there still be a place for “call to action” ad spots, typically addressed to human buyers? Probably not. Only memorable brand experiences, along with memorable and inspirational advertising based on remarkable, emotional and useful content, will generate our automated, AI-assisted, loyalty.