Technology branding has never been an easy task for tech startups. From the rapid pace of technological change to the ever-evolving relationship between humans and technology — there are many, many reasons.

From all the technology startups trying to find their place in the market, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has always been the most challenging one.

On one hand, we have authorities and tech giants using AI for surveillance, thus raising privacy concerns. On the other, we have companies saving lives with the use of AI, making a positive contribution to humanity. As we stay lodged between these two extreme ends of the spectrum, it gets even more complicated for ordinary people to understand how they can make good use of this technology, without feeling threatened. And, this is a serious issue that any AI startup needs to be aware of and consider.

The first-wave AI startups focused on the glory of high-tech and created their messaging around the ‘disruptiveness’ of their products. Even though it created an exciting sci-fi effect amongst people, the more the technology was understood, the more cautious people became about it. We know now that ‘disrupting’ is not always a good thing, after all.

Now, the second-wave startups focus on how AI improves productivity and decision making — which is a much better approach to take. It helps people perceive AI as an assistant rather than their competitor, and to see that it is not there to replace them.

So what should tech startups focus on next in their branding?

I believe that messaging should be built around the fact that AI can elevate and increase human capacities. That means the capabilities of AI merged with human skills and emotions to achieve a better outcome — with the human still taking ownership of this outcome. After all, we still want to feel that we are in control.

However, before we get to the stage where we can see humans and AI working ‘hand in hand’, there are three major barriers that tech startups need to overcome.

The three major barriers between people and AI startups:

Seeing a significant boost for the economy, thanks to the deployment of AI technology, both governments and AI companies offer their own (not always socially approved) answers to the questions of “What is the most ethical way of using AI?” and “Where should we stop?”.

However, a commonly accepted definition of ethics in AI hasn’t been perfectly shaped yet and people are still not certain on what they should expect from AI technologies.

It’s clear the emotion sitting behind the two questions above is fear. The fear of the unknown, alongside the fear of being made redundant by something that you have contributed to the creation of. Besides, AI technologies are very young and most people are only familiar with AI shown through the lens of Hollywood movies — in which AI takes control, creates chaos, and the hero ultimately pulls the plug to save humankind. This is not a prejudice that AI startups targeting consumers can easily overcome.

The last major barrier is the most complex to deal with, as AI startups have to design a language for people to use in order to interact with AI technologies. While this new language is universal on some levels, it also has several unique aspects based on parameters such as the form of technology, audience, market, and culture. So there’s a common language that the AI industry has been designing to communicate with people but each start-up needs to find their own accent, understanding how people interact with their machine.

Before revealing the ways brand marketing could help an AI startup and other emerging technologies, it’s important to differentiate two marketing strategies:

Direct Response Marketing
When you want your audience to take immediate action, such as subscribing to your community, buying your product, or downloading your lead magnet, you use direct marketing strategies. The objective is to convert as many leads as you can and you expect to get results as quickly as possible. The influence of this strategy on your sales figures and turnover would be seen right away, but that would also be temporary. You would need to constantly adapt your campaign and messaging to the changes in the economic environment and your product roadmap.

Brand Marketing
When you want to create a certain perception amongst the target audience and position your business in accordance with this perception, you use brand marketing strategies. While the objective is to build a long-lasting relationship and strengthen loyalty, you can expect to get results in the mid-long term. It is the only strategy that creates credibility, sustainable growth in profitability, and an increase in your valuation. This strategy is also, crucially, important in raising funds from VCs and angel investors.

How can AI startups use brand marketing?

1. AI used for good: Help people understand how your technology can create change for them

The global pandemic has made it clear that AI can be of good use in helping treat people and speed the discovery of a possible cure/vaccine. However, that same technology could also be used to identify who is at risk or pose a risk to others.

Many of us were happy to overlook privacy issues in exchange for a lower risk of getting ill. However, while this will make the use of AI for surveillance legitimate, it will also flame the discussions on privacy and how far the use of AI can go.

I believe that startups and future entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to define the relationship between human and AI by embracing an inclusive approach and making their audience the part of the process.

The AI startups that will manage to position themselves as leaders while being truly transparent are more likely to turn their audiences into advocates and ultimately win this race. Here are a few important things if this is the approach you want to take:

  • Don’t ever present your technology as a human replacement and always focus on its ‘human-friendly’ aspects.
  • Technology can bring fairness to so many fields like investment and law. The democratization of formerly semi-exclusive tools puts a great cause behind AI. Bring your audiences around your cause and let them be ‘the community’. Remember, many investors appreciate this kind of approach when making their investment decisions.
  • Make people part of your product’s evolution, gathering as much feedback as you can. This will help them feel more in control and, therefore, safe.

2. No need to fear: Communicate the value that your tech creates instead of what it replaces

I think we all agree millions of people are in love with Amazon and Netflix. But, have you ever seen Amazon saying “We kill high-street.” or Netflix saying “This is what we thought you should watch.”?

Yet, people love them because both companies have built their brands by carefully playing to two things humans have: greed and laziness. They’ve provided what’s already been on the market in a much more convenient, accessible, and affordable way, and communicated this in every single message.

What I am trying to say is: You have to design your entire brand communications around the value people will get without getting into the technology itself so deeply. Yes, being an AI startup is so cool and most teams provide incredible value to the development of our world and make a real change. However, if the value you create is not communicated enough and stays in the shadow of how advanced your technology is, it will take you years to achieve the product-market fit.

The general understanding of AI technologies is that they make our lives easier and improve our quality of life. How can AI do that?

  • AI can help us save on…
  • AI can help us take fewer risks on…
  • AI can help us … faster and better.

This list can go on, but the important thing is to define the ultimate value that your technology offers to your audience. If you start talking too much about technical details and advancements of your technology, you could alienate your audience, leaving you stuck at the fear barrier.

3. A warm distance: Balance the cold face of tech with the warmth of human interaction

Although the seed of AI technologies was planted years ago, the technology is still young and people are still not sure whether they need to treat AI technologies as humans or machines. This is a huge barrier for AI startups to pass: How can you communicate with a machine doing what humans do?

I want to share a recent experience of mine.

As many of us have done during the pandemic, one night, I was having a video call with my friends. During our call, one said the robot mop he ordered hadn’t been delivered yet, so we advised him to use customer support on the app, which he did. We also warned him it was actually an AI bot and it sometimes gets confused. However, the funny thing happened exactly at that point and one of us said, “Don’t keep ‘him’ busy.” — she meant the bot. So, she actually humanized the bot and spoke of it as if it has emotions or perception of time.

Do you see how we are programmed to perceive anything that we can communicate with? We humanize so many things: our pets, favorite objects, brands, etc. That friend of mine had already accepted the AI bot as a human and expected others to treat ‘him’ the same way.

So, how can you differentiate your technology from humans and communicate the benefits while people treat your tech like a human?

  • Make it clear that the user still holds the majority of control and tech only exists to make life easier. We feel safer when we have more control over things.
  • Use jargon responsibly to emphasize the advancement of technology but still stick with the rules of human communication. The light-touch jargon will only help you to communicate the fact that it’s advanced and it’s new, while sticking with the generic communication rules that people still follow in their relationships.
  • Emphasis the importance you are giving to privacy and security. This will give people the assurance that they can trust your brand and that you are loyal to their confidence. It’s the fundamental element of a long-lasting relationship.

In conclusion

It’s almost certain that the way businesses and governments operate will change — hopefully embracing advanced technologies and including AI in their contingency plans. Although many lives have changed, the pandemic will also pose a great deal of opportunity for startups and small businesses, as well as corporate ventures.

People have been awakened to the importance of science and technology in the midst of ongoing seismic shocks to the global political and economic system. There is no doubt that this should, and will, affect AI’s ways of communication and its relationship with humans.

And, of course, until people are ready to replace their partners with robots, AI can simply just stay as their ‘smart friend who they can always rely on.’

Cover image source: Pixabay