AI icons within human heads

Generative artificial intelligence (AI)—defined by McKinsey & Company as “algorithms…that can be used to create new content, including audio, code, images, text, simulations, and videos”—is a hot topic in B2B branding, and responses range from excitement to concern.

On one hand, generative AI makes common tasks easier and faster to complete, and professionals across our fast-paced creative industry are already weaving it into their workflows gladly. On the other, no one wants their career and sense of purpose displaced by a bot. Especially when our guts tell us that when it comes to creating persuasive designs, compelling messages and motivating experiences, it is human intelligence, emotions and instincts that are essential.  

The businesses we serve deserve our thoughtfulness and discipline as we integrate generative AI into what we do. We should always make the most of new tools for their benefit, enhancing our efficiency to speed projects forward. At the same time, it’s our role to ensure that the brands we build will create value by genuinely connecting with people—and that requires something as vital as B2B brand strategy to stay in human hands.  

Generative AI’s tantalizing promise

We understand the temptation to jump into—and rely on—generative AI to help build a brand experience. Plug a prompt into ChatGPT and it can generate taglines and marketing content, even conduct research, in seconds. Visual tools like Khroma automate brand palette creation, generating final colors in just a few clicks.

So of course our clients ask us about generative AI all the time. Should our brand team use it to cut costs? Are we falling behind and sacrificing competitive advantage?   

The answers to these questions are both complicated and simple. Yes, generative AI helps speed certain processes, making the implementation of a brand—execution, as opposed to strategy development—significantly faster. (When you’re staring at a blank screen under pressure, a suggestion from ChatGPT can at least offer a starting point.) 

But when it comes to fundamental decision-making about how brands can connect with their complex, deeply human stakeholders—choosing precisely what to say, what visual signals to send and how to behave to inspire specific actions—it’s important to keep generative AI in its place. Leveraging it is one thing. Deferring to it is something else. 

Here are nine reasons we believe AI just can’t compete with live branding experts when it comes to B2B brand strategy. 

Why Generative AI Won’t Replace Brand Strategy

1. Its outputs are literally average.

Ask someone on the street what ChatGPT does, and they might say it “learns” how people write about a topic to become the tireless content-generating expert you need. But generative AI doesn’t learn because it can’t think. The algorithm crawls the dataset it’s trained on, recognizing patterns. And then it generates new sequences that match. Let’s set aside whether or not that’s a form of plagiarism (though some ethicists say so). It’s definitely a path to making safe, familiar promises or arguments.

Branding is about standing apart, representing a unique point of view that will resonate with stakeholders whose multifaceted thoughts, beliefs and feelings you understand deeply. Generative AI’s content, by contrast, represents well-precedented thinking.

As noted, generative AI is great for shortening the human brain’s transition time between tasks by offering suggestions. But its outputs need to be shaped and evolved by a person, whose human insights into target audiences’ thoughts, beliefs and feelings are irreplaceable.

2. It’s not intuitive.

While it’s gotten less press lately than generative AI, traditional AI can analyze masses of data at high speeds and create forecasts: predictions for what will happen next based on how numbers appear to be trending. But it lacks human perspective and hindsight. Remember, each data set represents a snapshot of a moment in time. Actions taken in one circumstance may not be taken in another.

Why does this matter? Because even the most detail-oriented B2B buyer is as motivated by emotion as service attributes and benefits. AI is great at crunching numbers or summarizing previous research to identify what stakeholders are doing. Qualitative research, which unearths why they’re doing it, produces findings with longer shelf lives. It reveals deeper needs that can stay constant even after trends and cultural moments have passed.

To create value, brand needs to connect with stakeholders intellectually, emotionally and instinctively over time. Insights need to not only be gathered but interpreted and reinterpreted. AI can help identify trends to watch, and there’s extraordinary value in that. Only a human expert, however, can evaluate and intuit what trends really mean, especially as contexts and factors change.

3. It’s not strategic.

AI can also analyze data about competitors and potentially recommend competitive white space. But most B2B brands operate in extremely crowded marketplaces where the strategic equivalent of low-hanging fruit won’t get the job done.

Building brand strategy requires broad perspective and understanding across a business’s context, shifting market trends and stakeholders’ needs and hopes. Opportunities range from changing what business you’re in (often marked with a full rebrand) to refining single elements in a brand refresh, closing small but all-important engagement gaps that can make all the difference.

It takes discriminating, experienced minds to decide which approach will be most compelling to stakeholders. AI can help identify competitive openings or even brand weaknesses. From there, a person—not a bot—needs to make the big strategic decisions.

4. It has no values.

While generative AI’s capacity to recognize patterns across people’s work (written, visual, even aural) and produce variations is impressive, it can also reinforce biases by trafficking in stereotypes or failing to represent diversity. The technology isn’t to blame. The problem is that fallible humans created its source material, and generative AI lacks the human judgment to detect the problem. It needs a person to review its work, recognize potentially damaging messages and say, “No.”

Brands need to express clear, specific values to win and sustain stakeholders’ trust and loyalty. One misstep in today’s viral world can have real consequences. The most well-tested, sophisticated algorithms out there can still fail to identify problematic speech, and no one wants outright falsehoods in their generative AI’s data set, either.

We see the risk in trusting AI’s outputs blindly as too great. When it comes to walking your brand’s talk, best to trust the discernment and care of your human brand team.

5. It’s not emotionally intelligent.

Picture this: you’re having a small issue with a product, and the brand’s go-to customer “Help” solution is a chatbot: generative AI designed to simulate human conversation. The chatbot searches for keywords in what you type, but it can’t read your tone at all. And its relentless cheerfulness as it fails to recognize your problem only makes your frustration worse.

Thanks to AI’s lack of emotional intelligence—the capacity to be aware of emotions, detect and understand others’ feelings and respond appropriately—it’s transformed you from a customer with a need to a customer who’s annoyed.

Because people’s feelings are such strong decision drivers, brand relationships must be defined by sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Emotional intelligence demonstrates to stakeholders that you’re really listening.

We believe chatbots will improve over time. We also can’t argue with the benefits of 24/7 online or in-app support. (For all our virtues, people do require downtime that can inconvenience customers.) Yet for now, there’s a reason we’re all typing “representative” and “live agent” into those chat windows. The human touch matters.

6. It can’t grasp nuances.

Emotions aren’t the only expressions that communicate shades of meaning. Again, we give AI credit for its speed at gathering data and performing broader analyses. But when a B2B brand’s opportunities and barriers are all in the fine (human) details, nuances become all-important—and AI just might miss them. It can struggle to account for cultural differences or grasp the complexities of different brand interactions.

A brand’s connection with its stakeholders is strongest when it’s specific, close and yes, nuanced. Stakeholder perceptions and preferences can be tricky to navigate. Only live brand experts can build their strategies with every last subtlety in mind.

7. It’s not creative.

Generative AI can pump out content of all kinds—text, images, videos, music. It can produce something technically unique by trawling its online reserves and packaging it in new ways. But is it capable of true original thought? No.

Brand specialists are dot connectors. They can think outside the box, understand people’s needs and create genuinely new concepts, designs and messages that will resonate with stakeholders to help a business meet its goals.

We see a clear difference between marveling at what generative AI can produce in the abstract and recognizing new, delightful ways to help brands strengthen their relationships. Generative AI is great for experimentation and can bring new life to a stalled process. Once our synapses really start firing, though? Human creativity wins.

8. It can’t shape compelling stories.

Ask generative AI to tell a story, even providing key points to emphasize, and it will produce…something, again, based on pattern recognition. But great storytelling requires understanding of narrative structures and emotional arcs. If a brand narrative doesn’t feel relatable, different, true and relevant—as if written just for them, in their specific situation—stakeholders can be left cold.

In the worst cases, generative AI’s combined shortcomings (lack of emotional intelligence, values, capacity to account for nuances, etc.) can lead to storytelling disaster. Just this year, MSN—after laying off two dozen staffers—made the mistake of trusting generative AI with an obituary. The resulting story referred to the deceased as “useless,” provoking outrage even after it was removed.

Storytelling is an essential tool for creating those intuitive moments of connection that inspire people to welcome brands into their lives. Companies with complex technical products rely on brand stories to humanize them. And after a merger or acquisition, brands need stories that can help unite employees—moving them to perceive the new entity as greater (and more meaningful) than the sum of its parts.

Let generative AI remind you of classic storytelling forms (e.g., the hero’s journey). Input some initial ideas and see if it can spark new ones. But given how powerfully stories shape perceptions of a brand, only enlist a human to tell them.

9. It can’t sustain relationships.

For all generative AI can do, it can’t match brand specialists’ insights into how to manage relationships over extended periods. Market conditions fluctuate along with buyer preferences, and crisis moments pop up suddenly. People can also appreciate a brand’s history and how public perceptions of it can change over time. Algorithms can’t.

Brand relationships require the capacity to adapt and respond fluidly to ever-evolving needs. Brand strategists excel at shepherding that process, helping a business nurture lasting relationships with everyone from customers to partners to investors to internal teams. Feel relevance slipping? Your living, breathing brand team probably has a gut instinct on how to reclaim it.

Brand specialists also have the uniquely human ability to build client consensus around proposed strategies or tactics to get plans put into action. (We challenge any form of AI to champion a new law firm brand, persuading managing partners, practice area leads and other internal stakeholders to approve a new, carefully deliberated identity.) Clear communication skills and the ability to collaborate around a whiteboard about what really matters, right now…these are strengths AI simply does not have.

Our shared future with generative AI

We’ll continue to watch generative AI as it evolves and revisit its impact on the world of B2B branding. We have no doubt it will continue to be a helpful tool for managing increasingly complex design, copywriting and other execution tasks—supporting brand strategists as we help clients’ businesses grow. Speed and efficiency are vital to our industry. Being able to help more clients more quickly is a win. 

But from where we stand, the expertise and human perspective that branding partners provide will remain essential for developing the greater strategies that drive lasting value creation. To differentiate themselves and to connect meaningfully with stakeholders, businesses need a deep understanding of their unique roles in people’s lives—and partners who can continue to understand what will motivate human beings to support their brand. 

That kind of understanding about people only comes from people. It’s something enduring to remember as we all harness generative AI’s power, today and tomorrow. 

To discuss rebranding strategically in the age of generative AI, contact us

About the author

Anne DeAcetis

Anne DeAcetis is a strategist at DeSantis Breindel. She is fascinated by how brands can inspire employees, fortify business partnerships and delight consumers to loyalty—by design.