31 January 2019 | Anant Sharma
The world is changing, and changing fast. How we interact with technology is changing us as people. It’s changing business. It’s changing branding.
Exponential growth in AI, machine learning and a pervasive desire for personalised experiences has contributed to the rise of ever-human like chatbots and voice-based programs.
So, in the brave new world we live in today where our relationship with technology is based on conversation and learned human behaviour, how has branding undergone transformation?
Fundamentally, the purpose of branding is to help us humanise business. To create emotional connections with products and services, and better understand context. To help us recognise and relate to the material world around us.
And brands manifest across many different touch-points. Traditionally, a logo would have been accompanied by a design system: a manner of expression that helps create a recognisable set of visual elements.
Some can probably identify Tiffany’s shade of blue. Most can probably identify O2 from its distinctive water droplet visual cues. Everyone knows Coca-Cola from its signature swirls. No need for a logo.
As branding moves into an experience, this naturally evokes other senses.
Hilton was famous for the smell of cookies in their reception. It reminded business travellers of their mothers’ kitchen, helping make more homely long trips on the road.
BMW has a brand centred on performance, and new models play the sound of the engine through the speakers in the car, even when the stereo is off.
But we’re entering an era where there is a new dimension to branding, what it means and says about business. How the brand listens and responds. The principles and ethics by which it acts on your behalf.
There are big questions that need to be answered, and the smallest of details that need to be designed.
When your Volvo drives on your behalf, you need to have a sense of how it might respond to moments of moral quandary versus, say, a Rolls Royce.
Also when our phones and computers update autonomously, we need to understand by what principles they behave today, to better believe they’ll do right by us tomorrow.
The space afforded to traditional visual branding is reducing. Tangible print branding was amplified to work for bigger screens and new, interactive mediums.
Then, as quickly as the supernova scaled up in screen size and Flash-based animation, our screen real estate reduced into mobile, shrinking back. We needed to start considering the depth of the experience, progressively disclosing messaging over a series of taps and clicks. The phone became a watch, and the watch became Alexa.
We need to think long and hard about what branding means in this next era of interface design and advertising. What does branding look like in a world where our relationship with technology is conversational? We increasingly vie for attention through digital first services, finding our place in the home screen or striving it to be curated into relevant parts of our users’ experience.
There has already been a ream of brands who have enjoyed great success in chat-sized windows. The Edwardian (a hotel brand of Radisson) implemented Edward the chatbot and learned a huge amount about their users.
Questions that had never been asked of receptionists before (is the coffee free?) indexed highly. It transpired that British guests don’t like coming back to their room when it’s in the process of being cleaned. Many people forget their room number.
Hospitality is synonymous with human service, but in many cases, people prefer to interact directly with technology than have to deal with humans. And there is a huge amount to learn, helping make a more user-centric brand.
Meanwhile, even in financial services, apps like Cleo integrate multiple bank accounts to deliver one integrated view of your financial wellbeing in Facebook Messenger.
Who would have thought? The brand's tone of voice combines quirky, tongue in cheek colloquialisms and memes that you’d never expect to get away with in the serious matter of money and financial well-being.
But it works, and people are fine with it. The brand is forthright and consistent. And you allow it a joke or two, despite the fact it can see into all of your bank accounts.
Why is that? What is it that makes it OK to behave so loosely?
Most of us can probably remember the debate in 2016 when Microsoft launched Tay, the artificial bot that responded to users in real time, learning and adapting how it spoke to teens based on its own understanding of its audience. Its personality evolved the more people interacted with it. The only problem was that it quickly became the target of racists and xenophobic users, in turn adopting their characteristics and traits. The teen bot became a racist, evil, sex loving robot and had to be shut down by Microsoft.
Google’s own foray into AI-powered bots was also recently suspended. Google ‘Allo’ used a series of algorithms to help you write pre-canned responses in conversation, but adapting your tone of voice and language based on the recipient (amongst other variables)
And Facebook shutdown Facebook M at the beginning of this year. An AI-powered assistant that you could converse with released in closed beta to around 2,000 Californian based residents.
But while these experiments and endeavours haven’t all worked, the power of AI and natural language synthesis is a formidable platform on which brands can now build their experiences.
Google recently demoed Duplex and had a virtual assistant call a Chinese restaurant, converse with its owner (whose accent was not straightforward to follow), and book a table for dinner.
Convincing pauses, moments to think and other subtle mannerisms made for conversation indistinguishable from one between two humans.
Of course, access to at least one of either Cortana, Siri or Alexa is now possible for the majority of people who own a smartphone of some sort. For those who’ve heard the enunciations and inflexions of all three, take a moment to consider what type of personality each has, and what that says about them as a brand (and indeed, what it says about their parent companies).
How do we design personalities that have the power to adapt to need-states, place in the user journey, and level of intimacy with our users? As designers we need to create unique front end brand experiences, harnessing the power of this emerging technology. Indeed, there is already a ream of platforms that support this form of design… such as BotBot, a bot to design bots.
But ultimately, it’s important to remember that great experiences are formulated by creating attributes that clearly define contrasting emotional variables - the ‘range’ of the brand tone if you like.
It’s this range of emotions that enable us to create a point of tension, and a point of release as users move through experience.
Much like the hero’s journey, we need to move through an arc to feel a sense of change or transformation. Ultimately, it’s this that helps us go beyond satisfaction, and into delight...