With intelligent technology becoming increasingly sophisticated and many aspects of our lives going on auto-pilot, Ajay Murthy asks, will we soon be marketing to machines?
Looking ahead to a future in which intelligent agents who know all our preferences and needs take charge over certain aspects of our lives, we as humans become algorithm-based decision makers. So, how then do we as marketers adapt to this change in how consumers make choices?
I want to explore this topic that is still on the fringes, but definitely on the horizon. To begin, I propose two questions:
1. What is a brand if not a shortcut to a decision?
Put simply, a brand is a tool that we use to help us get somewhere quick. It shortcuts our thinking, lessens the mental load, and presents a simple solution – this little icon, colour, sound, or shape in our hand means that. Most of what we do now in our roles as marketers and creatives is try to build and sustain those associations as well as be present when it matters.
2. What is Artificial Intelligence if not a decision making tool?
It’s a tool that we’ve built to help us answer the stuff that was too big, complex, boring, or even impossible for us to do. It’s a tool that we outsource our decision making functions to. Sure it is at a rudimentary state now but it is getting increasingly sophisticated. Once it is advanced enough, what aspects of our decision making process will we outsource? And from a consumer point of view, what parts of a standard purchase journey will we stop doing?
Of course, we are still a while away from sentient robot butlers but the building blocks to that butler are already here.
The really interesting stuff usually lies at the intersection of things. It is in the tension caused by the challenge to an established order that new things come from. By now, we will have all heard Justin Trudeau’s prescient and eloquent call to arms at Davos last year when he said: “The pace of change has never been this fast. It will also never be this slow again”. It was an astute observation but I think it’s missing a trick. It is not just the pace of change that we should be mindful of but also the nature of the change.
For example, someone in 1920 would have been more or less accurate when they attempted to predict what life would be like in 1935. Now, as we stand at the cusp of 2020, it would only be a fools exercise to try and predict what 2035 is going to look like.
We are not just tweaking stuff and optimising the stuff we know anymore. We are starting to create new forms of decision making systems that are quickly building a capability that can match our own – balancing rational and emotional needs.
From a marketing point of view, the question isn’t if we will outsource our purchase journey, it is how much of the purchase journey will be outsourced. Think of all the purchases we go through in auto-pilot, automatically picking the things we know rather than what is best for us. How will this change? From never being on the wrong insurance plan again through to sweating out the details on kitchen cleaning products. Also consider the changes to impulse purchases, how will we indulge and in what way?
This is also not a science fiction dream, intelligent decision making algorithms have started powering nearly every aspect of our lives and we didn’t even notice it.
But this is not a new phenomenon. We have always tried to do much more than our physical and mental capacities have allowed us to. We are obsessed with trying to overcome our limitations both physically and mentally.
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian academic wrote this seminal book called The Medium is the Massage where he analyses this relationship we have with the tools we make. One of his enduring ideas is when he says, “All tools are an extension of a human faculty, either physical or mental. The car as an extension for our foot – allowing us to go further. The first stick we picked to break rocks with an extension of our arms. This printed article as an extension of my vocal cords and brain.”
Early computers were nothing more than fancy calculators. We did most of the work in our minds and then turned to them to execute. It was a tool that occupied a space in our houses and we went to it to do things, the same as we would with a toaster. In the last 20 years, that thing has leaped out from your desk and onto your pockets, ears, wrists, eyes, and soon possibly embedded inside you.
89 percent of us now turn to our phone in the middle of a task. We on average pick up our phones around 200 times a day for short bursts. We are becoming incapable of functioning without these extensions to ourselves. Our patterns of behaviour and ways of being have changed.
When was the last time you sat down and did long division? How many phone numbers do you remember? Just the act of typing has changed how we navigate language and construct sentences. History has shown us that a moment a machine does something well enough, we let it do it for us.
All of our collective achievements and progress has only been possible because of the things that we have made. Every tool that we have ever created has only made us more human. With every tool we’ve ever made, we’ve been giving ourselves a capability that would have been previously unimaginable.
And the next set of capabilities that we’re about to give ourselves is going to be possible because of AI. If a mic acts as an extension of my vocal cords, then think of AI as an extension of your brain and mental capacity.
In a way we have already outsourced our memory, we don’t need to remember everything now thanks to connected smartphones. Soon, we’ll be able to outsource more of our decision making as well. We can let go of the things we don’t want to.
Our AI powered digital butlers/assistants will become these little extensions of ourselves that are out there doing our work. As the person in the middle, we will be bigger, more capable, more broader in our reach and interests. There will be a halo around us – with us in the middle and all our assistants around us. We are not about to replace ourselves, we are about to amplify ourselves.
When this is in place, think of yourself as the CEO or taskmaster of your own set of digital assistants doing your work for you. Some know to automatically order extra toilet paper as you’re running out while others give you suggestions for what your mum might like for her birthday. All of this of course, already exists in a very rudimentary form.
The line between what a machine is and who we are as humans will no longer be as obvious.
Marketing’s role in this state of play will be re-defined. Marketing departments have always been the interface between the organisation and the consumer. Historically we have been the cheerleaders of our organisations as we take our message and product out to the consumers hoping to build a lasting connection. Will this be enough in this reality?
How will marketing’s role need to adapt as it takes on a role across every stage in increasingly hybrid and complex purchase patterns? It will need to speak to and interact with both the multiple intelligent butlers or enablers around a consumer as well as the human in the middle. This role will extend from simple automated demand fulfilment to still playing that critical role of strategically deploying creativity in a quest to build a human connection with the consumer.
With these active untiring intelligent agents operating on our behalf 24/7, what is the importance of simplicity that they cannot offer? Or creativity? Or positioning? Or even brands themselves. Is the future bland and utilitarian?
This represents a potentially fundamental shift in the role that marketing plays. So, will we be marketing to machines? Yes. However, what is a machine will no longer be easily defined. Neither is what marketing itself is.
This article was originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of NZ Marketing. Click here to subscribe.