Technological advancements in the East have long been of inspiration to the rest of the world, but how are data and digital fairing in terms of brand marketing and evolution? After speaking at Dubai Lynx about this very topic, Asma Shabab (marketing and communications leader for IBM’s Watson in Middle East, Africa, and Turkey) took the time to answer some of our most pressing questions regarding Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and — of course — how the two have evolved, together.

Most important, we were curious to see how Eastern applications of this (still rather novel) technology can influence our own purview surrounding its potential and feasibility.

Asma, as expected, definitely knows her stuff…

Brandingmag: What is your opinion on merging creativity and technology? How can brands achieve this balance of quality versus quantity in their marketing and communication?

Asma Shabab: Technology has become an integral part of consumers’ lives. From using apps for enhanced convenience or as entertainment, almost every aspect of engagement has a form of technology built in. Thus, technology has become a catalyst for creativity. Take for example an app that allows you to order groceries and reduce your time spent shopping or using artificial intelligence to create a movie trailer based on insights from previously successful trailers. Tech helps create better and relevant experiences, and provides more value to customers. For marketers, it also eliminates the need to choose between quality and quantity in campaigns. Advancements in marketing solutions, including the use of artificial intelligence, allow brands to know more about their customers and use those insights to create more personalized and memorable engagements, all the while constantly learning and tailoring their communications for better results. In addition, marketers now have more visibility into the effectiveness of their campaigns; thus, quantity becomes irrelevant as they can now create targeted campaigns that increase the return on every dollar spent on marketing.

Bm: How does brand culture change – or have to change – with the strong (and, most likely, novel) introduction of transformational technologies such as IoT and AI?

AS: Technologies such as AI and IoT have tremendous impact on brand culture as they help companies develop a more personalized relation with the consumer. We are in the earlier stages of adoption of this technology, but it offers two important benefits:  The first is that IoT allows companies to understand user data, how an individual is actually using the product and when. This was not possible before and has huge implications for redesigning features and value propositions. Take, for example, the sale of a microwave. Once the product was sold, the manufacturer would not know how it was actually being used, but with a connected microwave, they can understand how often the product is being used and which features are most prominent. If the data suggests that two of the buttons are hardly used by 90% of the buyers, there is a business case to redesign the microwave and replace it with features that may be of greater value to buyers. There is constant and real-time engagement, so you are getting feedback on usage all the time.

“The saying ‘communication is important in any relationship’ has never been more applicable in a marketing context.”

Brands now have a constant stream of communication and the ability to respond in real-time. AI then takes it one step further and helps establish a deeper, more meaningful relationship between the brand and consumer by constantly learning about the consumer and responding according to their preferences (the second benefit).

Bm: Does the implementation of a tech-driven, brand strategy come from the top down or the other way around? What’s the best form of leadership for such a profound shift?

AS: Adoption of technology inherently implies a penchant for innovation and leaders need to understand the importance of an inclusive organizational culture that encourages empowerment. Leaders have a huge role to play in implementing a tech-driven brand strategy – they need to establish a culture of trust that supports collaboration and knowledge sharing. Creating a culture that allows for failure, experimentation, and iteration while focusing on outcomes is tough, but a necessity nonetheless. The rate of change in technology can overwhelm, so leaders also need to ensure that their teams are working in a non-threatening, agile environment that allows them to experiment.

At IBM, our leadership is adopting agile marketing which has improvisation, iterations, testing, and data as its foundation. The results are speed, adaptability, and creativity. In the words of our global CMO, Michelle Pelluso, “With a clear view of the goal, creativity can blossom.”

Bm: During your experience driving the Watson IoT program, has there been one question that clients and partners have asked the most when it comes to applying IoT methodologies?

AS: Where do I start?

Clients and partners are enthusiastic about the promise of IoT and AI, and for good reason: this is the first time the world has established a continuum between physical and digital worlds. They do not exist in silos anymore and that offers tremendous potential for engagement, cost savings, and transforming the way business is done. IBM recently published its annual C-suite study and found that 66% of CxOs are planning to incorporate IoT into their business operations.

The potential of IoT is really about what you do with the insights and data you are collecting from connected devices, and business leaders are investing in IoT to use interconnected data insights to drive innovation.

But one question they are increasingly asking is, “How do I leverage this data to achieve competitive advantage?”

Bm: What is the biggest brand potential offered by IoT platforms that clients and partners seem to know the least about?

AS: Did you know that approximately 60% of data, if not used immediately, is wasted? It tells us how time impacts the value of data.

“Companies who are able to use time-sensitive data will create a competitive advantage for themselves.”

Real-time data from connected devices can provide brands with increased opportunities for brand engagement where companies can use the insights to evaluate, re-engineer, and fine-tune customer experiences. Imagine a virtual assistant on your fridge that uses natural language to speak to you and has up-to-date insights on what is in the fridge. You can inform the customer about changes in optimum temperature, and the customer can also get real-time information about items not in the fridge. This convenience strengthens the relationship with the brand. It also helps companies understand user patterns for developing better value propositions, not to mention being able to identify previously unknown or unmet customer needs.

The biggest brand potential is the enhanced quality of the relationship between the user and the brand.

Brandingmag: How has the relationship between IoT and AI evolved? Where do you ultimately see it going – what’s the ideal data-meets-branding scenario of the future?

AS: Studies show that there will be more than 90 billion connected devices by 2030. Now, imagine the amount of data they will produce. The relationship between IoT and AI is based on the premise that to glean insights and learn from the data these connected devices offer, we need artificial intelligence. It is the same for marketers and brand managers; they now have data coming in from the connected device that they can apply analytics and AI onto. They can understand how and at what times a product is being used – and they create a better understanding of you as a consumer in order to improve brand engagement with you. For example, they can set up gamification to increase usage or respond continuously to real-time interactions.

“Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things provide industries with the ability to look at data and identify ways to monetize it.”

This comes with an inherent ability to reshape customer value propositions. Imagine being able to redesign your product because you now know that three of the buttons on your microwave are hardly used and only end up confusing the customer… Or saving your customers’ time by understanding their buying patterns and prompting a “buy milk” notification while they’re at the grocery store because it has run out. The value proposition has evolved from delighting the customer to delivering the kind of peace of mind that comes with increased convenience.

Bm: How does the application of IoT differ for MENA brands when compared to their counterparts in other regions of the world?

AS: MENA is an exciting region and has leapfrogged other regions in various areas of technology. Dubai is leading the conversation around smarter cities globally and has a razor focus on using technology to impact citizen convenience. Nairobi has used IoT technology to create digital maps of traffic and road conditions. And there are numerous other examples. We’re observing more and more companies discovering engagement opportunities through IoT and this will be the most exciting area. At the end of the day, the value of technology is how it can change lives, and I do believe this region has a lot of promise and opportunity in that aspect.

Bm: As an advocate for gender parity (moment of applause), how do you envision your personal work – and field, as a whole – improving the gender gap as it relates to access and opportunity?

AS: As a society, we are at a critical juncture for women in business. In the past few years, we have seen women spearheading the conversation around gender parity. I have the good fortune of working at one of the most inclusive companies in the world, but there are many companies that have to cover a lot of ground in this space. IBM is doing some tremendous things in addressing gender parity, which includes creating a culture that celebrates diversity and makes conscious efforts to create a pipeline of talent that increases the percentage of women in management, technical, and executive ranks.

Technology itself is an important factor for reaching gender parity. The access of digital platforms and broadband Internet have given women tremendous opportunities. These technologies have expanded women’s access to opportunities that were not available to them before and allow them flexibility at work. Women can now earn money while working flexible hours from the comfort of their homes.

It’s also crucial that we continue to encourage women in science. Being a woman in this industry gives you the opportunity to design the future and change the way the world works. As technology continues to permeate every part of our lifestyles, our cultures and behaviors are going to be influenced by it – and women need to be in the driving seat.

Cover image: Michał Kubalczyk