Practitioners will need to jolt consumers into taking notice – and brand activism might just trump AI.

The Internet of Things means that people will increasingly delegate buying decisions to AI-powered bots. People can already buy a range of products, from toilet roll to instant coffee, with one push of an Amazon Dash button. Amazon Dash Replenishment takes this a step further, incorporating sensors into connected devices like printers and dishwashers to order new printer cartridges or dishwasher detergent automatically when supplies run low.

It’s time-saving technology, but widespread adoption of these devices has been slow, perhaps due to consumer mistrust that they will be ripped off. Will my dishwasher automatically reorder one detergent if another is on offer? The expected rapid emergence of voice, however, will speed the move to more automated purchasing (‘Alexa, buy me some tea bags.’).

To be successful, these connected devices must move from single-brand choices to artificially intelligent algorithms that will automatically purchase from a repertoire of the consumer’s acceptable brand choices. The choice algorithm would include price, but also other criteria that the consumer has specified, such as format, pack size or their degree of preference for one brand over another. Once these initial criteria have been set by the consumer, the buying decision is left to the bot.

What then is the role of the marketer in this world? Work akin to search engine optimisation, optimising the brand offer so that it presents the criteria that will best meet the requirements in the decision-making algorithm for a particular buying situation?

Yes, but a new approach to brand building will also be required. Brands will need to find a way to disrupt consumers sufficiently so that they deem it worth their time and effort to insert new decision criteria into the bots’ consideration set. This will require making the brand meaningful enough to people that they move from a passive choice (via the bot) to an active brand choice – moving from building mental availability to creating ‘mental disruption’.

Is purpose enough to create mental disruption?

Building mental availability is about more than simply salience and distinctiveness (though they are important). Brands must also engage the consumer in a way that connects with them and the things in life they care about.

The proof can be found in the ‘Power in the Mind’ measure we use at Kantar TNS to understand brand affinity. Power in the Mind measures how well a brand meets consumer needs, engages them emotionally, and is considered more attractive than alternatives. If a brand has higher Power in the Mind share than its market share, then the brand can leverage this Power in the Mind and build share if it can strengthen on market factors such as distribution and pricing.

Will a strong sense of brand purpose be enough to create the mental disruption that will cause consumers to take notice and go to the effort of entering new consideration criteria into their connected devices’ algorithms? Brands will need to revisit their brand purpose and decide if the conviction behind it is sufficiently motivating enough to disrupt consumers, and whether they really deliver against it strongly enough to convince consumers to take action.

Adding brand activism to brand purpose

Brand purpose is the change your brand wants to make in the world. Brand activism is how your brand delivers against its purpose in a way that convinces consumers you are creating meaningful change. Only then will your brand have enough mental disruption to cause consumers to think about whether the cause resonates with them strongly enough to insert your brand into their bot’s consideration set.

Of course, brand activism can bring with it the risk of polarising opinion. Big political shifts, in the West particularly, have created issues on which people are taking sides. To enjoy a broad reach, polarising your audience may not be wise. Brands, especially in the low-involvement categories most likely to be purchased ‘automatically’, should think about the causes that unite rather than divide. And they will need to demonstrate to people that they are really making a difference in support of the cause.

One brand doing that has done this is Dulux with its ‘Let’s Colour’ project, which donates paint to communities to help them transform a local space with colour. In 2013, Dulux estimated it had added colour to the lives of more than 200,000 people in the UK in their schools and nurseries, community centres and sports clubs. Local activism makes it easier to focus on bringing people together in a common cause. The results are also very clear, so the impact is easier to demonstrate.

Physical disruption as well as mental disruption

Another consequence of buying decisions being delegated to bots is likely to be the re-emergence of sampling as a key marketing tactic. J. Walker Smith from Kantar Consulting has described the shift to algorithms being in control as the ‘pivot to passive’. Walker says that ‘the algorithm may be able to buy stuff, but it can’t use it. That’s where brands can have an unmediated connection with consumers.’

This will mean moving beyond physical availability, making your brand available in as many places as possible, to focusing on physical disruption – essentially, ‘forcing’ your brand onto people by dropping it through their letterbox. Expect to see sampling being used particularly for new product innovation, where it will be even harder to disrupt the delegation of buying decisions to bots by brand messaging alone. Direct-to-consumer models by manufacturers will also increasingly be used as a physical disruption tactic.

Marketers should start thinking now about how they will deal with the rise of these forces leading to more automated purchasing. In particular, if your brand operates in a low-involvement category, start to think about how your brand should focus on mental and physical disruption rather than just mental and physical availability.

Reproduced with permission of the author Kirsty Cooke. This article was originally featured on the Kantar UK Insights website (

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