A view from Martin Harrison

Turning brands into algorithms: why marketers should welcome our new robot overlords

I have a suspicion that algorithms are better at the things brands are supposed to be good at than brands are themselves, writes Martin Harrison,...

At heart, brands help us make decisions. How? Because we trust them. Not in a conscious, emotionally active way but in the way we trust the tensile strength of steel and so happily work away in the 20th floor of a skyscraper.

We tend to talk about trust as if it is an incredibly difficult thing to earn, that people give it slowly, nervously, until making the decision to commit deeply. In fact, we’re hard-wired to trust.

We couldn’t get through the day without the myriad heuristics that reduce our cognitive load and help us interpret the world.

Trust is our belief that the world behaves in a consistent way. The strongest brands are those that behave consistently and gain our trust through our observation over time of what a brand does or stands for, and our belief that it will continue to do so.

Eliminating thought

We trust brands not because we think about them deeply but precisely because we don’t have to give them much thought at all. Our lizard brain loves that.

So then if a brand facilitates decision-making through its consistent behaviour, algorithms are looking pretty good. They can reduce, or even eliminate entirely the need for decisions. That’s pretty killer right there. And they are consistent. That’s what they do.

But this is a very reductionist view of a brand. What about the emotional component? Let’s assume for a moment that we are as emotionally invested in brands as some of us would like to think. It’s fair to say that this emotion is bound up in second order benefits: making us feel good about ourselves, our social status, or even the simple pleasure of a well-designed thing working well.

But there are plenty of algorithms that inspire emotional responses in people too. People adore their Spotify playlist. People love their Facebook feeds (which may be bad for society as a whole, but that’s a downside brands and algorithms have in common.)

Trust in algorithms

Even Nest, which is basically a clever thermostat, inspires trust, because the algorithm goes beyond removing the need to make decisions about temperature, to promising to help you save money and be more environmentally friendly without you really needing to do anything. It makes you a better person. So, better at decisions, more consistent and able to offer higher order benefits. I for one welcome our robot overlords.

But here’s one final thought - for existing brands, algorithms are new, incredibly powerful routes to market (see the Amazon Dash button). In the 1980s and 1990s, retailers and brands recognised that fighting each other only drove value out of categories, and so they pooled data to create ‘Category Management’ as a discipline.

Algorithms, as many point out, are made by humans to serve humans with all their human biases. Google recognised this with characteristic insight: "Brands are the solution, not the problem… Brands are how you sort out the cesspool."

It’s time to reinvent Category Management for the digital age. Let’s figure out how to use algorithms to strengthen existing brands. You too should welcome your robot overlords.