Artificial intelligence is the most ubiquitous innovation you never see. It quietly powers automatic translation and closed captioning, automated media manipulation, search results, social media filtering, medical diagnosis, shipping logistics, and targeted advertising. There is likely no aspect of human industry and society that AI will not eventually touch–for better or for worse. Consumers, however, have few ways to understand when and how AI is being used, and to judge for themselves if they see it as a benefit or not. It’s simply not a recognizable element of a brand.
If AI is to become a meaningful facet of society, identifiable and understandable by consumers, its value must be articulated. And for that to happen, designers of AI-driven experiences must make the invisible visible; they have to give AI a good, old-fashioned brand identity.
The Case for Branding AI
A skeptic might wonder why AI needs branding in the first place. If it’s meant to silently toil away in the background of our lives, why does it need to announce itself? Why give consumers yet another thing to think about?
But brand-building has always been key to making impersonal industrial processes, technologies, and corporate organizations relevant and relatable to people–especially in cases where there’s little functional difference between one corporation’s products and services and its competition’s. Brands are the human face of an industry and the primary mechanism businesses use to make unique, differentiated promises to their customers.
Every successful brand articulates itself to people both through familiar visual branding assets–a logo, typeface, color palette, and so on–but also by crafting distinct experiences that make products and services tangible. The cushioning of shoes, the sound of a car engine, and the closing of its door, the color of a pill’s coating, the login mechanisms of a phone, the hidden chipset in a computer, the coating and insulation of a jacket, and the alert sounds of a digital device can all be meaningful (and trademark-able) elements of a brand experience.
Invisible by Design
The key obstacle that AI faces, from a branding perspective, is that it has been engineered to be invisible. AI is often deployed as a way to eliminate friction and to reduce people’s awareness of technology. Unlike other familiar brand elements–color, typography, logos, texture, sound, tone of voice, photography style–AI is often seen as being most successful when it’s completely invisible.
Consider the role that AI plays in creating shopping or content recommendations within products and services today as opposed to, for instance, a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant: a sommelier’s job is to converse, inspire, and educate; diners’ experience with their sommelier’s unique human intelligence is everything artificial intelligence isn’t: It’s highly visible, opinionated, and slows down a process rather than speeds it up. In contrast, Netflix’s celebrated, AI-based recommendation engine–which Netflix has estimated being worth $1 billion to its business–succeeds entirely by virtue of its invisibility and the way it reduces rather than amplifies interaction: if the very first thing you see on the Netflix home screen is exactly what you want to watch, Netflix’s AI has done its job.
In this case, AI has succeeded in Netflix’s goal of directing people toward relevant content, which is the only real reason why people pay for their service in the first place. Despite its UI being an indispensable part of the product, nobody in all likelihood buys a Netflix subscription because they enjoy hanging out in the UI, flipping through box art without ever watching anything. Netflix’s AI is valuable because it’s invisible; if it somehow interrupted you–remember Microsoft Word’s Clippy?–you would get annoyed and perhaps consider joining another streaming service.