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I Went To A Conference On AI In Marketing and Branding (and I Got a Lot More Than Just This Tote Bag)

by Bill McCool on 05/22/2023 | 5 Minute Read

 “I’m much more focused on questions than answers.”

That’s how Noah Brier kicked things off from the stage of BrandX, the first-of-its-kind conference about AI in branding and marketing. 

Also, the “X” is silent, which is a little confusing, but then again, so are most facets of AI. Two years ago, crypto baffled you. Last year, it was likely NFTS or the metaverse—now, we've got AI to contend with (and maybe whether it will kill us all a la Skynet). For what it’s worth, I don’t believe it will destroy us all, but I do think it will have some lasting effects on branding and marketing—hence, why I’m at BrandX in the first place.

Brier founded the conference, and his resume reads like a laundry list of all things internet—he also started the content marketing platform Percolate and the newsletter Why Is This Interesting. For Brier, he has found most of the conversation around AI to be disappointing, and he views many of these new tools as a creative accelerant and that many designers and marketers need to play with them and build up their intuition while breaking down a lot f what they have learned up to this point.

A Gatorade x Fruit Loops sneaker created in COLLXBS.

Aside from doomsday scenarios, much of what gets hyped tends to be from the “what if Wes Anderson did X” camp, which has become its own genre (and lazy prompt). But it’s also a useful prompt because Wes Anderson has a pretty established aesthetic. The same can be said for brands, or at least good brands, because, as Brier put it, good brands tend to make good images. His own CollXbs experiment uses AI to create a brand collaboration of your choosing—say, what if LEGO and Nike made a pair of sneakers (I tried my hand at a Burger King x Cholula ice cream collab—it wasn’t so great). The point here is that so many of these tools lend themselves to the world of brand design because they can pick up on good art direction, which is maybe why Coca-Cola is saying brands should invest more in AI and not Web 3

“Ask questions,” Noah said. “Tinker. Don’t trust anyone who sounds too confident.” As far as advice goes concerning many of these new tools and the overall state of AI, that’s pretty valuable. But that’s also the real takeaway from the conference. Even for those without the rosiest image of AI (that would likely be me), right now, everything’s play and experimentation. Those are good things in whatever field you're working in. 

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Flair AI.

Toe-dipping aside, the day highlighted some promising tech. Flair AI is a design tool where you can upload pictures of your packaging and generate a background (or models) for a photoshoot. Brandguard is an AI platform that uses a brand’s guidelines to monitor brand assets and marketing campaigns by dishing out a score concerning how “on brand” it is. 

AI R&D agency Addition previewed work they created for Atlassian—dubbed “The Dreamkeeper,” it’s an AI tool that visualizes and preserves your dreams once a ChatGPT assistant asks you specific details of your unconscious musings. Once brought to life, it gets added to their gallery of dreams where you can also find users with similar nighttime shenanigans. It’s an addictive tool to play with as you can watch it work in real-time as it starts to generate images and offer suggestions on improving the quality of your dream visualization. But it’s also the kind of innovative experiential brand design that could become the cornerstone of any marketing campaign in the years to come.

Journalist Meredith Broussard, professor and author of More Than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender, and Ability Bias in Tech, gave a fireside chat on how brands and marketers can avoid biases in large language models despite many of these pieces of tech having algorithmic biases baked into them from the start. 

The day ended with an ad Turing test. However, instead of testing the intelligence of a computer, the audience was asked if they could tell who worked on a print ad campaign for a fictional energy water brand called Volt, a group of design students, or a gaggle of designers using AI. Surprisingly, only 53% of the audience could tell the difference among a handful of entrants (with yours truly also splitting the difference as I rushed through my vote). What’s remarkable is that this is absolutely glass-half-full-or-empty territory, and depending on how much faith you have in AI, it says a lot in either direction (53% feels pretty high—this was not six-finger territory).

But if there was one thing that gnawed at me during the event, it was the handful of speakers and designers claiming—maybe a little too confidently—that “AI’s not coming for your job.” To which I would ask, well, how do you really know that? What’s become clear over the past year, at least for many folks experimenting with AI, is that you really do need to know how to manipulate the tools and have a strong grasp of design history and aesthetics. Plenty of folks talk about the hours-long process of generating some of their projects, and with some of the work, that shows—this isn't something that can be done in five minutes while binging Gilmore Girls reruns. And, yes, studios will likely start carrying positions like Junior Prompt Engineer.

And if these tools can save designers from some of their more tedious duties—like, say, an endless array of 3D rendered images of products—do we really think they’re going to have time to spend on other more serious work, or will you need fewer folks on your team?

I genuinely don’t know the answer to that, and it’s critical question people really need to start examining. And I’m not sure how many of the attendees cared about that either. Certainly not some of the investors and marketing folks I was surrounded by. Because once you get beyond the incredible and seemingly limitless magic act that AI has presented itself as things get murky pretty quickly.

And that’s why, for now, I’m not trusting anyone who sounds too confident.

BrandX will retrun this fall 2023 in San Francisco. Go here to learn more.