Can A Modern Brand Dance Like No One's Watching?

I had one of those Deep Conversations with a colleague this week, about artificial intelligence’s potential impact on customer experience, brand authenticity, corporate purpose -- that kind of thing.

I was talking to Reuben Webb, Stein IAS’ chief creative officer, trying to learn more about that global B2B agency’s “postmodern marketing” concept.

To oversimplify: For the latest/greatest marketing technology -- and, more to the point, still-emerging machine-learning capabilities -- to really create awesome value, marketers must connect it to brands' emotional roots. Only by combining technology with core insights about the emotions motivating human behavior can we genuinely touch hearts and minds -- and thereby influence behavior.   

In other words, to make AI-mediated customer experiences work at scale will mean imbuing those machines with authentic understanding of a brand and its values so those machines can deduce good choices on the fly, in real time, in any number of unpredictable situations. Programming them with anything less, or with pretend values but pure profit-oriented programming, will end badly -- with schizophrenic AIs wreaking havoc, as science fiction literature portends.

But Reuben bemoans the fact that marketers have lost touch with their emotional roots. The “modern” marketing technology stack with its big data and deep analyticst has turned modern marketers into slaves to technology. The balance between marketing science/technology and creative’s pursuit of authentic human emotional connection has skewed way too far over toward the math side.

As Reuben tells it, brands today are simply too self-conscious. “The emotional roots of advertising and marketing are from a time when people didn’t know what a brand was in the way they do now," he said. "In the early days, no one thought about it that hard. So a brand was a much less self-conscious thing, more free to be intuitive. People were out there doing things that would become fun and memorable, and there was less self-analysis about it. For example: the jingle. What is less self-conscious than a cheesy song about the brand? Today, the jingle is dead.”

I keyed into the word “intuitive.” I’ve long been a disciple of intuition, as explained by the late great Carl Sagan’s Pulitzer-winning book “The Dragons of Eden,” all about the evolution of the human brain. Sagan’s book describes, in lay terms, how the brain evolved, how each function works, and -- in the end -- why intuition is its most valuable and important artifact. But it goes on to point out that Western civilization long ago lost its trust for intuition. We developed rational thought as a way to prove to ourselves the “truth” of our intuitive insights, which in fact are data-rich, but whose development process is hidden from our conscious minds.

Back to Reuben: “The more we analyzed the concept of brand, the more self-conscious brands have become. And, just like people, the more self-conscious they are, the less attractive they are. Brands need to dance like there’s no one watching in the postmodern marketing era, like they used to in the ‘pre-modern’ era -- when things like jingles were commonly and unself-consciously expressed.”

Next, we both immediately keyed on the BBC interview that was hijacked last week by Robert Kelly’s toddler daughter and went viral, with a vengeance. Unintentionally, that brief video clip said something powerful about the stresses and tensions of work-at-home families and the impact of technology on all our lives. And 100% unself-consciously. Talk about authentic!

Could we think of a brand that had recently achieved such an unself-conscious dance? We conjured only one example: Oreo’s 2013 “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet when the power went out at the Super Bowl. Sure, the company made a tremendous, self-conscious effort to prepare for real-time marketing tweets, but it was its spur-of-the-moment, intuitive reaction that touched us.

And if you think Oreo’s ability to trust its intuition wasn’t brave, Reuben then told me about “the Oreo that got away.” At a conference last fall, he said, “I heard a Microsoft exec describe a past incident where he was working with a Super Bowl advertiser (fashion brand I think, shoe or sports maybe) and tried to persuade them to prep a reactive, real-time social team for the duration of the event and ’see what happened.’ The brand didn’t go for it, they couldn’t cope with the uncertainty.

“The brand that didn’t buy into the concept of free expression was too self-conscious to cope and missed the moment where intuition met courage to create something we are still talking about today,” he concluded.

This just in … As I was about to send this column to my editor, Reuben emailed me from a Manhattan subway car, calling this MailChimp campaign “an unself-conscious content marketing triumph.” I agree. I plan to head to Lucky Star Café to try the FailChips (hope they have barbecue), and I swear I saw that MailShrimp video during this year’s Super Bowl.

Since 2013, how many times have you seen a brand achieve that kind of unself-conscious dance, with powerful results? Seriously, let us know in the comments. We really want to find more examples!

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