The Rise of Branded AI

The field of AI research was founded in 1956 at a conference at Dartmouth. Deep Blue, the first computer chess-playing machine, beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. In 2010, IBM Watson defeated two of the greatest Jeopardy champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.

AI’s not new. AI technologies have been doing miraculous things for years and machine learning has been used in all types of popular consumer technology products such as email and ATMs. Yet most people have had limited transformative interactions with it outside of virtual assistants on their smartphones and connected devices like Echo, lane assist in their cars, or through films like Her or Ex Machina. Interactions that reveal the mind-blowing and perhaps unnerving possibilities of our autonomous future. But that’s about to change. AI’s going mainstream.

Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Uber, and Elon Musk, are all placing huge bets on AI. It’s already influencing our Facebook feeds, and services like Google Photos are dynamically improving our photography in surprisingly beautiful ways. Startups like The Grid are enabling people to make simple and elegant personal websites in minutes.

According to Gartner research, 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human and 40% of all mobile interactions will be managed by AI in 2020. M&M research estimates that the AI market will reach $5.05 billion the same year, and media and advertising is expected to account for the greatest share of it based on the adoption of AI technology that’s capable of predicting and influencing consumer behavior.

But in real and not-too-distant terms, what does it mean for brands besides smarter, more dynamic media, analysis, and automated customer service?

It represents an amazing new era for brand creativity and innovation. In 2003, Burger King created one of the most popular campaigns of the decade with the launch of Subservient Chicken, a single-page website that allowed people to make a guy in a chicken suit do outrageous things via text command, using prerecorded video. It was also a crude version of AI.

We now have the tech to make the “real” Subservient Chicken. It means that more creative time and energy can be focused on the content rather than the engineering. It also enables us to create experiences like this cheaper, faster, and built to scale. Small brands and companies can now build applications and experiences that were once considered out of reach financially.

It’s time to start experimenting. Here are a few good places to begin.

Start making chatbots

We’re still in the early days, but it’s not just hype. According to Business Insider, messaging apps are now bigger than social networks, and last April, Facebook made major news at F8 with the launch of its Messenger developer platform, enabling brands and developers to create AI-driven bots that automate support, shopping, and content experiences.

In July, they announced that they had 11,000 bots on the platform and 21,000 developers working on new bots. Not staggering, but also not unlike the early numbers for Apple’s app store. Brands like American Express, Disney, Whole Foods, CNN, NBA, Hipmunk, and even the White House all have bots, and you can bet you’ll see many more soon. It’s also worth noting that it’s not just a Facebook thing; chatbots can be built on just about any chat product, including platforms like Slack, Kik, and Text, to name a few.

What’s most exciting to me are the long-term, engagement possibilities. The sharing economy killed the micro-site, and the app economy killed the app. People ran out of attention. Sure, no one misses micro-sites, but brands have lost opportunities to create rich, interactive experiences.

No matter how good a video is, if you like it, you watch it, you share it, you move on. Even the best content is relatively disposable. Not necessarily so with chatbots. They can be both emotional and functional; entertain and solve problems. Most importantly, they’re systems not destinations. They can scale across platforms and support a variety of marketing functions.

A good example of this potential is something we worked on with Taco Bell: TacoBot, the first Slackbot that lets you order food without leaving the platform. The bot introduced a new and intelligent way for people to order food together, bringing e-commerce to the top co-working platform on the planet. Built with the engine, it understands natural language, even slang, so it can handle group orders expertly while also answering any quirky, non-food-related questions.

The investment was far less than a typical TV spot, but the brand ended up getting around $10 million in earned media impressions. A good chatbot has long-term sales potential and can steal headlines. What you want all your advertising to do.

Partner with AI giants

The AI brand marketing landscape is new, vast, and unchartered. If you want to increase your odds of success, lean on companies who have been investing in AI for years. Draft off of their scale, talent, and expertise. That’s exactly what ING did with their Cannes Grand Prix-winning and astonishing The Next Rembrandt, a campaign designed to position the brand as an innovative financial institution and sponsor of Dutch arts and cultural icons. They could have made an ad. Instead, they teamed up with Microsoft and experimented with AI.

The Next Rembrandt was designed to generate conversation around the impact of science and data on the art world by proving that the master painter could be brought back to life to create an entirely new painting. To pull it off, they studied 346 of the artist’s known paintings, using a deep-learning algorithm and facial-recognition techniques. After analyzing the data, the team determined that the painting should be a portrait of a Caucasian male with facial hair between 30 and 40, in dark clothing with a white collar and a hat, facing to the right. From there, they used algorithms to extract matching features. A facial-recognition algorithm learned the artist’s brushing techniques and an advanced 3D printer brought it to life.

Like all great works of art, it made you think and feel, but in an entirely new way. It made many like me question the future of creativity in an advanced technological world. We’re beginning to see machines do more and more things that were previously inconceivable. In the end, both brands proved that AI has the capability to not only outdo us at things like Jeopardy but also touch people on a highly artistic, emotional, and human level.

This project is somewhat of a watershed moment for AI brand creativity. Like all great advertising, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s highly crafted and uses ground-breaking technology to tell a story that’s never been told before. But most importantly, it was sponsored by a bank not a tech company. It sparked conversation, was one of the most original campaigns of the year, and made many see ING in a different and innovative light. The brand also smartly turned to AI leaders to make it happen.

Turn to the AI pros. It’s a winning strategy. They need your brand and creativity as much as you need their technology wizardry.

Use AI to make ads

At Advertising Week 2016, IBM Watson and The Weather Company announced that they were rolling out their first AI-powered cognitive ads. Last Summer, IBM also partnered with 20th Century Fox to make the world’s first movie trailer created by AI, for the new AI horror/thriller film Morgan, with amazingly creepy results.

Volkswagen is another brand who has successfully experimented with AI in its marketing. To launch the 2015 292-horsepower Golf R, Deutsch created Unleash Your Rrr, an online experience that harnesses the power of your voice to create a unique and custom test-drive video. You make car sounds and the Golf R reacts, whipping around historic Willow Springs racetrack. Screeching makes it drift, and roaring makes it accelerate. Every sound you make triggers a different maneuver.

To bring the idea to life, we created the world’s first AI brain that could understand abstract sound and emotions. At launch no other AI technology could do such a thing. Hundreds of clips were shot to create millions of unique possible combinations. It was shared in over 100 countries, inventory sold in record time, and the work picked up numerous awards for its technical innovation.

The power of AI to do creative things once done by people is immense, but we’re still a ways off from it replacing creatives. As the Washington Post noted, “The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets.” AI can do a lot, but it still requires creative people to give it charisma, personality, and wit. However, we should start looking at AI as a tool to help us enhance our creativity and make our ideas more novel. It can be a helpful storytelling aid and lead to more entertaining and engaging content experiences.

The industry’s currently obsessed with VR. I’m excited and fascinated by it as well. I want to see more brands experimenting with immersive and nonlinear storytelling formats, but I urge AI investment now. The innovation opportunity is real, and you can make immediate inroads. Making a bot won’t break your bank. Unfortunately, a high-quality VR experience is still costly and time consuming, and issues of scale remain. As Volkswagen’s GM, Digital Marketing, Mike Awdish, pointed out, “It also won’t make 30% of people sick.” I’ve been wrong before but am bullish on the potential of AI to grow brands creatively. Like the early days of the web, the rules haven’t been written yet. Start making. Shit’s about to get crazy.