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The birth of the ‘invisible brand’: an entirely new class of market forces

Last updated on July 18th, 2019 at 01:28 pm

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 corner- stone 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.”3 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 en- gaged 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 mar- keting 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 en- abled 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 turn-  ing the power of AI to the challenge of figuring out what per- sonalized 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 Face- book feed. When you go to, 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


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William Ammerman
William Ammerman
William Ammerman is the Executive Vice President of Digital Media for Engaged Media (part of Six Sails) where he manages digital publishing for a dozen consumer publications. Formerly, as Global Head of Advertising for Frankly Inc., he managed digital advertising for hundreds of television stations, including their websites, mobile apps, and connected television (OTT) platforms. Prior to that, he was Tribune Media’s Vice President of Programmatic and Data-Driven Revenue, and held senior advertising positions with Hearst Television and Capitol Broadcasting.