There’s no doubt that the potential impact of AI is being discussed in every industry around the globe. In the world of design and branding, as in others, it could revolutionise the way we work, but there are also fears that it could leave hordes of people jobless, while for some, its benefits have been greatly exaggerated and should be left well alone.

As with every new piece of technology, the first step is to take time to understand its potential and risks. There are certainly exciting possibilities for brands, but the most important action is to set some ground rules around how they use it. AI is likely to affect people’s lives in significant ways, and brands have the responsibility of ensuring that the technology is being used ethically, responsibly, and in ways that align with their companies’ values and goals.

Protecting brand identity

Great brands are built on constraints: a set of principles and guides that help to carve out a unique space for the business, connecting its purpose and people. Guidelines and structures enable them to be creative and flexible without damaging the overall brand, but new technology provides an opportunity to disrupt those constraints.

With AI, the creative potential is vast–it’s finding ways to use it while maintaining control of your brand that is the challenge. Efficiency gains, while brilliant, aren’t necessarily a net positive if what is produced erodes the brand (something we’re already seeing). For example, Levi’s recently came under fire after it announced it would be using AI to generate more diverse models for its campaigns, with people questioning why they couldn’t simply use more diverse human models.

AI has the potential to disrupt brands on multiple fronts, one of which is visually. Would it be appropriate for Dove to launch a campaign full of AI models if it meant they could better localise their use of models? Absolutely not because their brand has been built on real beauty. But what about Gucci? Well, if the images were within the aesthetic of the creative director at the time, I’d argue that the brand has long sold a fantasy, and AI emboldens that.

There’s a verbal impact, too. Ask any teacher and they’ll confirm you can spot a ChatGPT essay a mile off, although this may get harder and harder to do. So, for brand consistency, AI will need to be trained to understand the idiosyncrasies of your brand’s tone and editorial style, just as you would train a copywriter.

If you’ve used Grammarly, you’ll have seen that it almost forces grammatical homogeneity, without reflecting the way that language is used in real life.

For example, we have a longstanding relationship with the fit-out industry, or as some clients like to say “fit out” and others “fitout”, but the distinction for each is important. Once an AI has learned your brand’s style, producing content should be faster, but ChatGPT isn’t quite there yet for branded content. Even if you give it editorial guidelines, you must remain in that conversation and remind the AI to stick to them.

There are new applications popping up every day that are, however, getting closer. Anyword, for example, provides generative copywriting for performance marketing and offers a high-level sentiment and gender analysis of the result. Brands must think carefully about how they will use tools like these.

The value of authenticity

Much in the same way a lack of visual guidelines can engender your brand’s rapid unraveling, not stepping in to understand AI’s permutations across your organization can lead to the same. Authenticity will be a huge obstacle for brands. The lines of what is AI-produced and what isn’t will become blurry, leading to distrust and confusion among consumers.

By setting your own AI ground rules, your company can demonstrate transparency and maintain trust with your customers. AI’s pace of progress and adoption means that brands pushing boundaries or applying AI to enable wider creative concepts are the ones currently getting the most airtime. A good example remains those leveraging AI targeting in digital advertising rather than to generate creative work itself.

Best practice for brands will be forged by agencies and clients who take a longer, strategic view. An ideal scenario would be that AI drives more businesses to strengthen their organisational purpose by encouraging them to have hard conversations about where using it fits within the creative expressions of their business, and what roles their people play.

Risk management

There are also significant legal risks in engaging in this rapidly emerging technology. There are legal battles around how visual AIs are being trained, what their source materials are, and who owns the authorship and licensing of them currently being fought. Not to mention that from a large language model perspective, data is often incomplete, inaccurate, and outdated.

Right now, the use of AI in a global brand context is still a wild west and the prevailing ethos says to “move fast and break things”, which is understandable if you’ve got the capital to support such a high-risk strategy. If you don’t have that budget, however, you probably need to approach the options more cautiously.

And let’s not forget the deeper and long-lasting ethical implications. Ground rules help you ensure your brand doesn’t engage in practices that harm individuals or groups. There have been instances where the way an AI created images or data was underpinned by racism, with the problem appearing to worsen rather than improve. Brands need to have a plan of action: how will they prevent ingrained human biases from infiltrating their use of AI?

Such forward thinking will simultaneously help protect your brand’s employees, as well. People are excited and scared of AI in equal measure but putting policies in place helps to guide the excitement in a productive direction, while also warding off the fear of job loss. Engaging with AI is not only a challenge of marketing and compliance but of employer branding, too. And they’re all very much interwoven.

The future is ripe

The use of AI is exciting but has the potential to have a significant impact on your brand’s reputation. If AI is used inappropriately or in ways that are perceived as unethical, it will damage reputation and erode consumer trust.

Before leaping into the unknown–no matter how exciting the possibilities seem–do your due diligence. A SWOT analysis is a great starting point, but engaging with agencies that are integrating AI into client brands and creating clear guide rails around its usage is also important.

In crafting your brand’s AI policies, defining the risks and opportunities for the business has to come first. These policies should address things like:

  • Data privacy–what materials are appropriate to share with an AI and when;
  • Referencing–how your team can tell internally when something has been created or contributed by an AI, and how this is surfaced to your partners;
  • Inclusivity and ethics–providing your team with a guide to sense-check the inherent biases of AI tools.

It’s important to understand how to include AI into brands and businesses, as well as the promises and pitfalls of doing so. Each one of these tools is being updated regularly; people could spend an inordinate amount of time trying to keep abreast of the change. It’s more important to foster a culture of continued learning and development. The trick–as with any new piece of technology, no matter how transformative–is to use it mindfully, so that it wholly aligns with your brand’s values and purpose.

Cover image source: tawatchai1990