The conflict between technology and brands

Technology is literal. Coding is explicit. Algorithms are exacting. In digital media, there is no nuance of meaning, there are no connotative concepts. It is a box built for precision.

Branding is fuzzy. It pulls on emotions. It romances people with memorable imagery to create desire and affinity. It is connotative by design. Branding does not lend itself to structure and materiality like the products it supervenes upon.

From the earliest days of the Internet, branding was discarded or ignored in favor of rigid product descriptions and structured ratings using sentiment analysis. For economic reasons, brands were forced, almost exclusively, into advertising placements as search results or on publisher pages.

Do a search on a favorite brand name and you will get everything about the product, where to buy it and how the product rates against similar products; travel is an excellent example where brand essence is replaced by product attributes. You will not get a brand message unless the brand bought an advertisement. And because it is an ad rather than indexed content, it quickly disappears and has no enduring life.

So who cares about brands, and why should technology address the need to brand?

Brands serve the public interest. People care about and are influenced by brands. A brand is a promise and persona that creates expectations and fosters positive perceptions. A brand conveys quality and earns trust; over time it becomes a touchstone and shortcut for satisfaction and positive outcomes. For example, you know that McDonalds fries or a Starbucks latte are going to taste great no matter where you buy them. Brands have badge value like wearing a Rolex watch or driving a BMW.

Brands represent huge financial value, both in terms of consumer pricing (aka, Apple premium) and financial valuations.

According to Ocean Tomo, brand value, plus that of goodwill and intellectual property, as intangibles, makes up 84% of the market value of the S&P 500.

In other words, the material things like inventory and finished goods, machinery, equipment, buildings, and other tangible assets account for 16% of the market value of these companies.

The brand, though an intangible, makes a business hugely valuable.

According to eMarketer, brand building as an objective represents about 40% of the $72 billion in digital advertising spending. Unfortunately, fraud, tracking, surveillance and other creepy data practices have resulted in millions of people installing ad blocking software that is killing this golden goose that supports so much of the world wide web economy.

Brands and technology are at a new inflection point as conversational computing emerges as the new consumer interface and technology platform.

Amazon Alexa, Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri, IBM Watson and others are making mobile and home devices come to life using artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and deep learning. We have a new way to command: computer, let’s talk.

These new smart systems are capable of understanding language, nuance, context, tone of voice, imagery, and many forms of perception. Some of these systems will become personal agents tailored to act on your behalf and reflect specific intent and preferences, including specific brands.

At issue is more than “how conversational computers will learn” (technical) but what they will learn (narrative) and from whom (authority). Training, instruction, and tutoring are required using data, information, and knowledge obtained from many sources.

Brands must assume these tasks of training, instruction and tutoring by supplying structured and unstructured information, easily accessible, in a way that conversational computers can consume. For example by using RDF and rich snippets, brands can be connected to concepts, product, and events within the linked open data (LOD) cloud.

What’s more, the Brands must make this knowledge appealing to consumers to import and leverage. Defining brands like Nikon in photography will be able to influence the conversation in different ways than an upstart like Lomography in a very different niche.

As these conversational computers become more popular, it is critical that brands advocate for themselves by actively participating in the education and manner with which they process information and preferences. Failure to do so will result in generic answers and interactions that lack the richness of personality and trust.

Brands have a great opportunity to be inside the latest technology and help shape the future of conversations.

Contact me to continue the conversation. Let’s go break some things.

Larry W. Smith

Twitter: @lwsmith10011