Gender and artificial intelligence: The five laws of branding AI

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps the single biggest challenge facing today’s brands.

This may sound like hyperbole, but anyone familiar with the development of AI over the past few years will know how disastrous it can be for brands to get it wrong. Microsoft’s chatbot Tay is the obvious example. She morphed from an innocent teenager to a Hitler-sympathizing robot within 24 hours. Microsoft quickly shut down the project, but not before receiving a barrage of criticism.

Amazon Echo branding AI

Even some AIs that have been considered successes have stirred up branding controversies. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are two of the most prominent personal assistant AIs. However, their femininity, combined with their role as a housebound helper, has been interpreted as regressive stereotyping built into their design. While clearly not intentional, this implicit reflection of the sexism underpinning Silicon Valley’s innovation is regrettable.

So, how can brands do better when developing AIs? In the spirit of Isaac Asimov, we at Landor have created what we see as the five laws of AI branding:

1. Your AI = your brand

Any AI your business creates will reflect your brand as a whole.

In fact, it has to. Marketers and brand managers need to recognize that automated bots are more than purely a service initiative and can directly impact a brand’s standing in the marketplace. While still relatively untrodden ground for the marketing department, AIs will act just like any other customer touchpoint—so their brand implications need to be acknowledged.

AI robot; Branding AI

Companies should get a handle on their AI brand strategy quickly. Brand managers who do not embrace AI are bound to face a number of challenges as the market and its offerings develop. Would you be happy if your chatbot didn’t echo your brand’s identity or values?

2. Make conscious decisions

Marketers cannot simply reflect societal norms in their work. Doing so increases a brand’s risk of reflecting the uglier side of human nature, which needs to be avoided.

This is especially true in light of the ongoing debate around gender identity. Just look at Microsoft’s Tay. Bots have suffered from issues ranging from static gender roles to racial biases concealed in AI language use. Responsible brands must instead take a deliberate and positive stand in the ongoing gender debate through their AI design.

What’s the best way to achieve this? Make conscious decisions when developing your AI. This may sound counterintuitive (“all of our decisions were made consciously!”), but it means considering the full ramifications of each feature of the design for your brand; it means considering your users and society.

Conscious decision making is also incredibly important to increase the efficiency of AIs as much as possible. Consider smoke alarm bot Nest Protect, which uses a female voice for its AI because the voice plays an important role in the device’s function. Research from the University of Dundee found that, when warned of danger, children respond best to human voices such as their mother’s. As such, Nest consciously opted for a female AI in order to increase its effectiveness in warning a family of fire.

3. Embrace nonbinary

One of the most outstanding recent developments in society has been the embrace of nonbinary values. From Call Me Caitlyn to Acrush, the boy band consisting of girls, we’re finding ourselves in increasingly fluid times. Why shouldn’t brands embrace this development?

More progressive brands are already following this agenda and opening themselves up to the possibilities. HSBC has introduced 10 new gender-neutral titles to accommodate the growing range of gender identities, winning widespread praise for its brand as a result. If this type of thinking is applied to its next AI chatbot, its brand could see significant benefit.

4. Go beyond human

Watson, Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Rosie, Tay—today’s AIs are anthropomorphic. But why are we so focused on creating human-centric robots given the evidence that we can accept and even bond with nonhuman technology?

Paro therapeutic seal; Branding for AI
Image courtesy of Flickr user Scott Brown.

Japan is well ahead of the curve on this. Paro, the therapeutic seal, is having a real impact on older people’s lives. Meanwhile, funerals are still being held for Sony Aibo robot dogs after the technology company discontinued support for the tech pet.

By taking a leaf from Japan’s playbook, brands have a chance to be truly creative with their AIs.

5. Be agile

In a way, this final rule encompasses the whole of this list. When approaching your AI brand experience, have fun with it and consistently rethink how it interacts with your customers. Move from bland and stereotyped to diverse and differentiated. Avoid explicit binary thinking and embrace the challenges posed by a society in flux.

But most of all, be ready for further change. Bots and AI could soon become brands in their own right, with Alexa viewed as wholly separately from Amazon. There’s also the prospect of brands interacting directly with AIs rather than consumers: In the near future Google Home could well choose a laundry detergent brand for consumers based on their preferences.

Google Home: Branding AI
Image courtesy of Flickr user NBD Photos.

Brands that are flexible with their AIs are most able to react to changes as they arise. With these laws in hand, they can be ready for anything the world throws at them—or their AI creations.


This piece was originally published as “The five laws for branding artificial intelligence” on Campaign Live (13 June 2017). Republished with permission.