A/D/O by MINI | Is AI the Future of Branding?

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Is AI the Future of Branding?

ZeBrand, a Japanese startup with global connections, is able to generate a complete brand identity in minutes with an algorithm. But can it replace the human touch?

The Snap ghost, the Uber "U," Facebook's iconic blue color scheme, even The Wing's swooshing white Ws – many of today's top companies owe their mass-culture recognition to branding. In fact, they may even owe their existence: according to a 2016 Entrepreneur article, "For every five startups that are still around, more than double have failed due to lack of branding." While hiring a traditional advertising agency like Pentagram or Razorfish could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $200,000 and take months to finalize a product, a new company is aiming to disrupt and even equalize the branding economy.

ZeBrand is a Japanese startup that has created an artificial intelligence algorithm able to assess a client's needs and complete a comprehensive brand identity in minutes, from social media and website assets to business cards and t-shirts. But if branding – which is supposed to be a highly creative, collaboration-driven practice – can be flattened to numbers and statistics, what does this mean for the design world? And will the emergence of AI in this space have to be an unhappy development for creative industries as a whole? 

ZeBrand works by simplifying the branding process as much as possible. First, it offers users a set of questionnaires, including a five-minute "business personality" quiz to help clarify messaging. From there, the platform, based on a sophisticated algorithm created using data from over 25,000 leading brand identities, will craft a unique strategy as well as a font, color, and visuals. "We believe our technology will be able to help solve branding challenges that many entrepreneurs, startup founders, and business owners face," ZeBrand CEO Ryo Kikuchi told The Journal.

Kikuchi is also the former chief innovation officer for ZeBrand's parent company, Morisawa, a typography group that has previously worked with Adobe Systems, Fuji Film, Kodak, and SoftBank. So far, expectations are high for ZeBrand, which won the Forbes Japan Pitch Contest prior to its US debut last month, and Kikuchi explained that rather than "replace" high level brand conceptualization, ZeBrand can help new or smaller companies gain the immediate branding they need to launch. "We wanted to make this service more accessible to those who are on more modest budgets," he noted, with a goal to help founders actualize their visions with minimal financial risk.

To test the effectiveness of the algorithm, I decided to try it out for a project I am in the process of launching – a global creativity newsletter – which has already undergone several rounds of branding and A/B testing. After visiting zebranding.com, I entered the project's aesthetic preferences, voice ("fun"), preferred color scheme ("black"), as well as a few keywords to help decipher the audience and overall feel. A few moments later, I received a complete branding tool kit… not too far off from my original mood board.

But what the process gained in expediency, it lacked in the often-overlooked touches that can make a brand more personalized – a custom font, an original eye-catching image, a unique color scheme. Essentially, my new branding strategy felt perfectly acceptable for basic advertising and portfolio purposes but was missing that extra "something" that made me, as a viewer, want to stay on the page and learn more.

"In the age of 'Blanding,' the trend of overly simple branding for optimized usage on social media, I'm not surprised by this development," said designer Louis de Villiers, whose clients include Nike, AT&T, and the Brooklyn Nets. De Villiers explained that a ZeBrand was inevitable. "Back when we were allowed on the subways," he joked, "I would see six different ads with similar, if not exact, branding structures, daily." As technology improves, he believes, and the "human-hand" gets further removed from daily processes, creatives must provide what AI can't – lateral thinking, relatability and insight, and nuances learned only through human experience.

"Branding design is probably the most personal design element that a company can have," said Tyler Lafreniere, senior experience designer at Adobe and co-founder of Mrs., a gallery for emerging artists in Maspeth, Queens. "By nature, it's the single visual embodiment of all the company is and stands for, so it also needs to clarify this in meaningful, or at least memorable, ways." Lafreniere believes that, though AI systems can be leveraged to augment human-run design processes, branding design requires a refined touch. The conceptualization, which can include multiple conversations with the client on what their brand identity needs to convey and the essence of the company, is also frequently used to refine the core business offerings and message.

"It requires lots of explorations and iteration to evoke a connection for the client and ultimately the viewer," said Lafreniere. He believes that, unlike many other areas of design, branding is much more difficult to quantify, often requiring several rounds with the client as well as sketching and iteration on design directions. Eventually, he said, the final design needs to be considered for all future applications, not just a flashy launch. In essence, a full branding kit should also create a five-, and in some cases, 15-year plan.

Designer Kenzo Minami, who has previously worked with Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Kidrobot, Raf Simons, VH1 and Ace Hotel (among others), sees AI algorithms like ZeBrand as akin to an off-the-rack suit – perfectly acceptable, frequently lower-cost, and easier to attain compared to the "bespoke tailored suit" experience of hiring a branding team. Both have benefits and drawbacks, it just depends on what you are searching for.

"When I work with my clients, especially on their brand identity, apart from the practical and basic information exchange, we get into more personal conversations about their passions, dreams, taste in general, what they strive for in life," he explained. "This is the exciting part of the process, especially when they are starting a new brand. I can see the excitement, and I try to translate this."

Ultimately, however, he foresees a future in which startups similar to ZeBrand flourish. "The branding and graphic design industry were already heading that way," he said, "and I suppose a large part of web design had already gone that path." Minami also believes there will continue to be a rise in demand for these types of services, especially when "everyone, not just corporations or companies, but every individual is trying to brand themselves” and is looking for accessible ways to do it.

"We don't believe that AI will completely take over the branding process," Kikuchi asserted, but he does believe in the potential and power of designers and creators. "Or believe it will be able to do better work in processes requiring more creativity and imagination," he said. "We are using it in a way to capture tendencies and trends by quantifying, calculating, and analyzing massive data sets so we can provide comprehensive branding products as quickly as possible." From there, he hopes to pass the rest of the work, where it needs imagination and creativity, on to humans.

Currently, ZeBrand is exploring a business model where the focus is on creating something from nothing, and then connecting users to designers, creators, or agencies for the remainder of the work that needs a more human touch. "We believe branding is a form of experience, and not just a typeface, color palettes, or visuals," Kikuchi said. At the moment, the platform focuses on creating two-dimensional expressions off branding, but believes that design work for 3D and 4D branding will need to rely heavily on human senses. "While AI helps to make the branding process more efficient and cost-effective, we hope to demonstrate the expression and creativity that can only be achieved by humans,” said Kikuchi, and, ultimately, contribute to building a world where AI and human work “co-exists harmoniously."