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Building a Human Brand in the Age of AI (Thinks Out Loud Episode 398)

Robot and woman engaging in discussion to illustrate the idea of building a human-centered brand in the age of AI

Is AI going to strip all brands of their humanity? Or is it possible to build a human-centric brand in the age of AI? Here’s a bigger question: Why should artificial intelligence be any different than everything that’s come before? Can corporations build human brands? Or are they constantly beholden to psychopathic tendencies?

The answer to those last questions, I think, give us the answer to the first ones. How can we apply the lessons we’ve learned about building human-centered brands to artificial intelligence, to automation, to technology at large?

How can you build a human brand in the age of AI? How can you connect with customers at scale using the tools available to us and make that connection human? What do you need to do? That’s what the episode of Thinks Out Loud is all about.

Want to learn more? Here are the show notes for you…

Building a Human Brand in the Age of AI (Thinks Out Loud Episode 398) Headlines and Show Notes

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You might also enjoy this webinar I recently participated in with Miles Partnership that looked at "The Power of Generative AI and ChatGPT: What It Means for Tourism & Hospitality" here:

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Recorded using a Shure SM7B Vocal Dynamic Microphone and a Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface into Logic Pro X for the Mac.

Running time: 24m 36s

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Transcript: Building a Human Brand in the Age of AI

 Welcome to Thinks Out Loud, your source for all the digital expertise your business needs.

Well hello again everyone and welcome back to Thinks Out Loud, your source for all the digital expertise your business needs. My name is Tim Peter. This is episode 398 of The Big Show, and thank you so much for tuning in. I very much appreciate it. We have been having lots of discussion around marketing and AI in the last few weeks, the last few months.

I mean, we talked last week about rethinking search marketing in the age of AI. We talked about anticipating radical shifts in your customers behavior when they’re all carrying AI with them wherever they go. We’ve talked about how to add AI to your team. And we’ve talked about the implications of AI in terms of, you know, does marketing have a future and the rebirth of trusted gatekeepers and Taylor Swift’s playbook for bypassing gatekeepers, how you can escape from big tech’s web.

And the thing that I want to try to do today a little bit is to try to connect to those threads. How do we think about AI? How do we think about using AI to build a human brand, a human centric brand? You know, in other words, can you build a human brand in the age of AI, in the age of artificial intelligence?

There were two different sources that triggered this topic for me this week. The first was Mark Schaefer’s excellent, excellent podcast, The Marketing Companion, where he and his guest, Dennis Yu, talked about human centered marketing at scale. They really were referring back to Mark’s book Marketing Rebellion, that talked about, again, why the most human company wins.

It’s an amazing discussion. You should definitely listen to it, and I will, of course, link to it in the show notes. Mark’s core thesis, which I just stated a moment ago, is that the most human company wins. I want to be clear. I completely agree. I think that there are so many particular aspects of marketing that depend on the experience that we give our customers and the experience that our customers have with us every day.

You have heard me say many, many times that customer experience is queen and that your customers make up your secret sales force. This is exactly what I’m talking about. And you absolutely should give a listen. At the same time, I saw an example of this being done in reverse this week. How you can make an inhuman company.

How you can be inhuman as you’re trying to build a brand. You all probably know, I’ve talked about this plenty of times on the show, that I’m an amateur musician. I’ve played music for years. I was a music major in college. I am still an enormous music fan. And a lot of money. A personal time, a lot of my private time I spend either playing music or listening to music or listening to things about music.

And there’s a podcaster I love on YouTube named Mary Spender, who has a video this week that blew my mind. Absolutely. Knocked me out of my chair in a negative way. She talked about Warner Music Group signing the world’s first quote unquote AI pop star, a character called Noonouri. You may be aware of this.

If you’re not, I encourage you to check out at least some of Mary Spender’s video. It’s well worth watching. And I want to be clear. I’m not going to say much here that Mary Spender does not say in her video. Noonouri is not an AI pop star. It’s a lie. Warner Music Group has signed no one. They’ve built an AI character that they’re positioning as an AI artist, an AI pop star.

Now I’m putting artist very much in air quotes. I don’t think this is an example of an artist at all. This is an example of commerce, pure and simple. Even the AI part appears to be a lie. They don’t seem to be building an AI. They’ve paid employees, creative individuals, to create an artificial person who they, the record company, Controls.

The artists are the people behind the curtain. The AI doesn’t appear to be creating much. Oh, though, if I’m being fair, it’s unclear exactly what the AI is doing versus the people are doing. There may be more than I’m aware. Warners, for obvious reasons, is somewhat coy on the specifics. From a purely business standpoint, This makes total sense.

I get it. Everything that the quote unquote artist creates is a work for hire. The company owns the end product free and clear. You know, if you look at, if you look at what Taylor Swift is doing with re recording her songs, re recording her masters so that she controls the end product, Warner is…

Basically doing something here to ensure that that doesn’t happen. The creators behind the scenes get paid once for their work and then never again. Assuming, of course, that they haven’t negotiated some ongoing rights. Though, let’s be serious. Do you think that’s what’s happened here? Or do you think that the company, the record company, has said, No, no, we want to own this free and clear.

I’m going to bet it’s that one. So, from a business standpoint, it makes sense. From a human standpoint. I think it’s gross. The actual creative people are getting paid to some degree, but they don’t own their creative output. And I have a tough time viewing what’s happening with Noonouri through any lens other than the recent Hollywood actors and writers strikes.

Just replace the artists, the writers, the actors, the singers, the performers, with computer animated contract laborers, focus grouped and A B tested to death, and you, the company, can control the output forever. Again, I suppose it’s fine as commerce, but it’s not art. And it’s exactly what everyone who’s worried about AI taking their job should be worried about.

They’re turning creative roles, they, Warners in this case, are turning creative roles into outsourced, low wage, fungible, replaceable, automated tasks. That’s not cool. It’s really interesting, and I, I use this in the negative sense, but it’s really worth watching. Because it’s exactly what people who worry about what AI can do should be worried about, right? It’s replacing people.

And this starts to get to the point. Can you build a human brand at scale? Can you build a human brand in the age of AI? That’s the lesson we’re seeing here. Because what is happening isn’t really new. We have a model that we can use to review artificial intelligence against.

Corporations have been doing this activity for years. If you think about bands like the Monkees, if you think about… Cartoon characters, animated characters, where they can replace the voice actor from time to time, or need to, right? Mickey Mouse obviously hasn’t had the same voice actor for his entire existence.

What they’re doing is creating these artificial constructs, these artificial characters, to have a voice in the marketplace that can be replaced, right? And, again, from a purely business perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense. What we have to ask ourselves is, is this creating a human experience that anybody is going to want, or is good for the world at large?

And we can look at it this way. When we think about an AI, we can think about corporations. Because corporations, like AIs, are artificial people. Corporations also can be, in one sense, psychopaths. Hang with me here for a second. Corporations are self centered, driven only by their own objectives, profits and returns to shareholders, and they have no innate moral impulses.

The company itself can’t feel bad for its actions. It has no guilt. It has no remorse. It has no sense of moral good or evil as a corporation. By the way, I didn’t invent this notion. Psychology Today came up with this more than a decade ago. I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds. Of course, I do a lot of work for corporations.

I’m stating the reality of what a corporation can be. Happily, I’m fortunate to work with a number of large corporations filled with incredible people who keep those corporations human focused. I work with small businesses in some cases, and the owner of the business are closer to the same thing, so the business, by definition, is somewhat more human.

But the reality is the corporation is this artificial entity that is driven only by its impulses to grow and to drive more profit unless people play a role in instilling it with that, that morality, in instilling it with a focus on human beings and not just How do we make as much profit as we possibly can?

How do we do whatever we can without having any moral guidance whatsoever? The thing that’s really interesting about that to me is that’s the playbook. That’s the guideline we can look to for people, as people, for how to make our companies more human, and how we can make artificial intelligence more human.

The thing that I would ask very often, and I understand the bias problem, I understand the alignment problem, and I’m not going to go into a long digression here about this, you can look those up. But we can apply those same playbooks, those same guidelines, in how we use AI. To help our customers, how do we apply those lessons to technology, to AI, to automation?

That was part of the discussion of the Mark Schaefer podcast and something that I think is really worth talking about here. There are a number of things we know to do when we’re working within the realm of a corporation, when we’re working in the realm of a company. To be human in our activities. So how do we apply those to our artificial intelligence?

Well, it starts with the idea of taking care of your customers. I’ve talked about this before in the In the arena of privacy, you know Julie Ask of Forrester Research talks about "think big mother, not big brother." Are you using these tools to help your customers to create a better experience? To do what’s right for them?

Or are you doing it because you can and it’s cool and it’s neat? One of those is, you know, the right thing to do. You’re looking out for your customers. The other is creepy and really kind of horrifying, right? Is Warners using Noonouri because that’s actually going to create great music for their customers?

Or are they doing it because it allows them to create more music cheaply without having to pay as much for it? One of those is cool. One of those, less so. Of course, the advantage of taking care of your customers, and Mark Schaefer references this in the book The Marketing Rebellion, is if you take care of your customers, they’ll do the work for you.

I call it your secret sales force, or empowering your secret sales force. The best form of marketing that has ever existed is always word of mouth. When you take care of your customers, when you put your customers first, they will come back to you again and again and again. And they will tell their friends and family and fans and followers about you and help you drive more business.

Ultimately, that’s the thing we always want to do. The second thing that I would encourage you to think about in this term, in these terms rather, is that you want to love your market, not your product, not your service. It’s not about you. It’s about the customer. It’s not about your needs. It’s about the customer’s needs.

When you put the customer first, they can see that. When you use AI, when you use automation, when you use technology to help, because you’re trying to help, they can see that. And that will help you build trust. Of course, you know this, you gain trust over a long period, you lose it in a second. So, if you’re just doing these things to be cool, or you’re just doing these because, well, it’ll save us a bunch of money, or things like that, without passing along those benefits to the customer, without doing it for the benefit of the customer, they’re going to see that, and they’re going to seek others who actually care about them.

The next thing that I would encourage you to think about, Is, and I’ve said this many times before, that the modern marketing team is a media company. Well, what does the media do? We think of them as broadcasting. We think of them as, you know, telling stories. All of which is true. But it starts by listening.

It starts by interacting. What is it that the audience cares about? What is it that your, your customers care about? You listen to your customers. You interact with your customers, which will enable you to tell stories that matter to your customers from the viewpoint of your customers. That’s how we want to use AI.

We don’t want to just say, Hey, churn out a bunch of crap content. We want to say. How can you help me enhance this story that I’m telling? How can you help me better understand the needs of my customers? Such that I’m doing what’s valuable to them. I’m doing what’s beneficial to them. Notice we keep going back to the same place of putting the customer first.

Another one from Mark Schaefer specifically that I love, though I’ve talked about in a different way. is that technology should be invisible. I’ve talked about the movie Her, and what they got right is that the AI just works. It just exists in the background of the lives of the characters. If you think about it, light switches are technology.

But they’re completely invisible to most people. We don’t think about them, we simply turn on the lights. If you’re like me, you may have had the experience of holding your hands under a faucet in a restroom, waiting for the water to come on, because we’ve learned to put your hands under the faucet, the water comes on in public places.

Well, obviously, that’s because they’ve made the technology invisible. Putting the AI front and the center. Only work if it actually benefits what your customers are trying to do or what your customers want to accomplish. Otherwise, keep in the background. Don’t worry about the AI. Don’t worry about making that the source, worry about does it help the customer accomplish their goals?

And can we do it in a way that it doesn’t even have to be something they think about? There’s a terrific book by Steve Krug called Don’t Make Me Think that’s about building websites. And the same is true for any customer experience. If your customer has to think about it, then you’re probably making it too hard for them.

But if it just works, if it just exists, if it just happens, then that’s how people get surprised and delighted. That’s how you create the kinds of customer experiences that people will want to tell their friends and family and fans and followers about. You may have noticed as I talk about these things that this aligns with a framework that I’ve mentioned many times before where content is king, customer experience is queen, and data is your crown jewels.

Content is how we interact with our customers. A modern marketing company is a media company. A modern marketing team is a media company. We’re creating content that meets the needs of our customers. Customer experience is queen. Well, that’s almost everything I’ve talked about in this episode. And data is your crown jewels.

Data is how you inform the artificial intelligence so that it gets better at doing a good job for your customers. None of this is new. We need to remember that the machines work for us. The machines work for our customers. If they don’t… Then they’re not doing their job. We are doing what companies can do when they get it wrong, of letting them be psychopaths as opposed to human centered and human centric.

Conclusion: Building a Human Brand in the Age of AI

I shared this idea a few months ago that these, these two concepts that I kind of hold as North Stars, what is a quote? Then Eleanor Roosevelt said that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. And the other is so old, nobody knows who said it first, but it says society grows when old men plant trees in whose shade they’ll never sit.

We get to build the future we want. We get to put these tools to work the way we want, just as we do with great corporations. Do you want to build the future that Mary Spender railed against, where we’re just letting the machines replace people? Or do you want to build the future that Mark Schaefer talked about, that I talked about?

Do you want your company to be a psychopath? Do you want your marketing to be a psychopath? Do you want your artificial intelligence to be a psychopath? Or do you want those to be human? Building a human brand in the age of AI requires that we think long and hard about being human centric in everything we do.

It’s about putting humanity first. It’s about leading with our own humanity. I know which one I want. I can’t wait to see which one you do.

Show Wrap-Up and Credits

Now looking at the clock on the wall, we are out of time for this week. As always, I want to remind you that you can find the show notes for today’s episode, as well as an archive of all past episodes, by going to Again, that’s Just look for episode 398.

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Show Outro

Finally, I want to say thank you so much for tuning in, and for participating, and for being part of the community we’re building here at Thinks Out Loud.

I know I say this every week, I know it might sound like it’s… Trite, but it’s not. I would not do this show without you. Your support, your listenership, your comments, your conversation, the community you are helping us build here means so very much to me. So please, keep your tweets coming, keep your messages coming on LinkedIn, keep your emails coming.

I love getting the chance to chat with you and hear what’s on your mind and learn how we can do a better job building the kinds of content and insights and information and community that works for you and benefits you. So with all of that said, I hope you have a fantastic rest of the week. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

And I will look forward to speaking with you here on Thinks Out Loud next time. Until then, please, be well, be safe, and as always, take care everybody.

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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