Brands’ biggest AI opportunity is in making customers believe the bullshit

Artificial intelligence is mostly a distraction from marketing fundamentals – unless you convince your market AI makes your brand better than the competition.

If only, someone posted last week on LinkedIn, there was someone out there who could could help me understand the potential of ChatGPT. It was a cry for help that went out with tongue planted firmly in cheek. If you work in marketing your feed, like mine, is stuffed to capacity with inane posts from a newly assembled army of AI champions.

My message to all of these people is the same. ChatGPT is a toy. A fucking toy. Put it down. Or, if you want to spend your professional time playing with it, don’t share your games with the rest of us. We have work to do.

I say that with two clear caveats. First, there may well be an era approaching in which AI and advanced programming transform many aspects of marketing. But novice home computing on a basic version of an early iteration is of no consequence to anyone. Like the multiverse and all the other technological wet dreams that have distracted and derailed marketers in the inevitable cycles of idiocy that bedevil our industry, we need to draw a thick black line between the long-term implications of what might eventually happen and the orgasmic cries of amateur joy emanating from a throng of premature adopters.

Second, you may sense my frustration. It stems from working in a discipline that fails to do the very basic things because of its continued obsession with Future Wank. While we play with meaningless toys and then waste even more time proclaiming their importance, the basic foundations of marketing are nowhere to be seen.

mark ritson FOM23

The biggest and most immediate implication of computer-based AI is that it plays to one of the oldest, most human, most subjective facets of consumer decision making.

Remember the data from the ‘Better Briefs’ research 18 months ago? It said 95% of agencies don’t think marketers brief them with any clarity or strategy. Two thirds of big brand briefs are unclear about who they are targeting. More than half the client briefs delivered last year had no clear objectives.

We need to put down the toys partly because they are toys. And partly because while we are fucking about with them, the basic building blocks of what we should be doing sit jumbled and unassembled on the floor of the playpen all around us.

Microsoft’s search gambit

There is one fascinating place where ChatGPT is having an immediate and immense impact on business. And that is in the world of search. The most boring chart of all time is the one that shows the market share for search. Over the past decade there has been an indomitable blue line hovering around the 90th percentile and running with an unerring horizontal trajectory across every quarter, every year. It’s the line representing Google’s share.

Beneath it, in a messy melange of different colours that cluster together on or around the single figure percentage level, are all the other brands. Yahoo, Baidu and a host of other losers bunch together at the bottom of the chart. They gaze up at the majesty of Google above them in the heavens. And shiver together down below. And among that pathetic huddle stands the Prince of Search. The brand that was meant to inherit it all. Microsoft’s Bing.

Launched in a blaze of publicity almost 15 years ago, Bing was meant to get Microsoft back into the search game. But it did no such thing. Bing has consistently achieved a piss-poor share of search. It currently enjoys fuck-all percent of the global search market. Despite the disappointment, it’s actually a fine search engine. But none of that matters. Google has the two great brand assets that make its domination all but impregnable.

First, it has 9 billion tonnes of salience. When you need to find a bar. Or a fact. Or a brand. You have already typed G–O–O into your phone or computer before you even know what you are doing. Google’s share of mind is so established it has almost become the verb for the category. Google it, you’ll see what I mean.

Second, and certainly lesser, are the brand associations that bolster and support Google’s search credentials. Most consumers think Google invented search. If you’re old enough, you still carry the memory of going from a shit, partial Alta Vista search outcome to the sleek, minimal amazingness of your first ever Google results. They have the best engine. Everybody knows that.

And when Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s CEO, he must have realised that one of his most important but most unlikely objectives had to be the dethroning of Google. But how?

AI as brand differentiator

A decade later, the ‘how’ finally presented itself. With the advent of artificial intelligence and specifically the progress made by OpenAI in opening it up to consumers, suddenly Nadella had a golden opportunity. And having spent 10 years waiting for this window, he moved quickly.

In January, Microsoft invested a further $10bn in OpenAI. The deal enabled access to Microsoft’s super computing capabilities and cloud-based services to expedite the AI learning process. In return, OpenAI’s tools like ChatGPT would gradually be integrated into Microsoft software.

In February, Microsoft unveiled an AI-powered version of Bing. “The race starts today,” Nadella declared at the launch event. And within hours the strangest of things happened: Bing became so popular it had to start a waiting list. Microsoft let consumers know that they could “get ahead in the line” if they made Bing their default browser and downloaded its app onto their phones. The battle for search had begun. Again.Is ChatGPT the next big threat to Google’s dominance in the AI market?

Is the new AI-powered Bing better than Google? Fucked if I know. But that’s the wrong question anyway. There are no real objective standards for any search engine. Like any other purchase, the objective performance is obscured, exaggerated and altered when viewed through the rose-coloured spectacles of brand equity.

The new presence of AI and the subsequent PR is enough to drive a shit-tonne of salience for Bing. In many cases, it might just be enough to drive a significant proportion of the market to switch search engines. And at that point, if you buy into AI and ChatGPT and the whole narrative of machine learning, you will perceive that your results are superior because of your prior beliefs. Similarly, when you next struggle to find your favourite trumpet or underwear or lounge singer on Google, it’s possible that all the BS about AI tempts you into thinking that Bing might do a better job, and 30 seconds later you’ve switched sides.

In a great moment of irony, the biggest and most immediate implication of computer-based AI is that it plays to one of the oldest, most human, most subjective facets of consumer decision making. Maybe I am a believer after all.

Become an even better marketer with Marketing Week’s Mini MBA courses. Mark Ritson teaches brand strategy on the courses. The next Mini MBA in Marketing begins on 4 April 2023, while the next Mini MBA in Brand Management starts on 25 April 2023. Visit the Mini MBA website for more information and to book your place.



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