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The Birth of the ‘Invisible Brand’

An entirely new class of market forces

The year 1776 was a momentous one in world events, not just for the declaration that begins, “In Congress, July 4,” but also for the publication of Adam Smith’s opus An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith’s book, a cornerstone  of  classical liberalism, laid the foundation for the academic study  of  economics. In it, he proposed that an individual working for his or her own self-interest will endeavor to produce goods of the  greatest  value, thus contributing to the public interest, as if “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his  intention.” Smith’s invisible hand became a powerful and enduring metaphor for the benefits of the free market.

The title of my new book, The Invisible Brand, derives from Smith’s invisible hand, and it describes an entirely new class of emerging market forces. Increasingly the hidden hands of personalized information, persuasion, machine learning, and natural language processing are at work behind the scenes, buried deep within the media we consume and the apps we use to guide our decisions.

Consider that marketers and buyers have always been engaged in an epic struggle. Over the last two decades, that battle has increasingly favored the buyers. We can find the best price for anything on the web, instantly. We can see how people have rated the seller or the product. We can skip TV commercials on our DVRs and block the ads on our phones. As a result of these shifts, we hold more power than ever before. Now that balance is flipping completely. The Invisible Brand is shifting the power back to marketers.

Internet giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are amassing incredible amounts of data about us. What they know no longer respects corporate boundaries. They can match the data they collect with personal information from database  marketing  companies  like Acxiom and Nielsen, companies that know our  credit  scores,  what cars we just bought, even how big a house we own. They know if we like to ski, hunt, or take vacations in Europe.  When  the  moment comes to put a message in front of us, marketers can combine all of that information to determine just what kind of message will influence us to do what they want.

Data by itself is not enough. Artificial intelligence is a game changer for marketers. Imagine the computing power that enabled IBM’s Watson to beat Jeopardy champions, Google’s Deep Mind to master the mind-vexing Chinese game of Go, and Alexa to respond to our every need. Now imagine a marketer turning the power of AI to the challenge of figuring out what personalized marketing campaign will invisibly push us to make a purchase.

AI will play an increasingly important role in our lives in the years ahead as marketers turn vast amounts of computing power to the problem of influencing people’s decisions. In the abstract, AI agents will constantly collect data about us—from our mobile devices, while we drive our cars, and while we sleep—and then analyze that data to learn how to persuade us and influence our behaviors.

The combination of data and AI will shift the marketing equation. In the twentieth century, the big shift was from mass manufacturing (think General Motors) to mass distribution (think Procter & Gamble). Now we are entering the age of mass customization. Your Facebook feed is different from my Facebook feed. When you go to ESPN.com, you see stories about the teams you follow, customized to your preferences. Information has become personalized. That means the power goes to those who know the customer best—based on leveraging AI and data about the customer.

Excerpted from The Invisible Brand: Marketing in the Age of Automation, Big Data, and Machine Learning, p. 8-10 (McGraw-Hill June, 2019), with permission from the author

**Originally published at B2B News Network

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