How IBM unlocks the heart of AI through brand experiences

Think AI is all flash and no substance? Marketing leaders at this year’s SXSW Festival share how to use the technology to embrace human emotion.

Experiential AI

Beki Winchel is senior director of content & engagement at Spiro.

This year, it seems AI is all that any marketer can talk about.

The trending technology has become more accessible than ever, forcing brands to get on board—or get left behind.

As both excitement and fear over AI continue to swirl, IBM’s Program Director, Executive Programs & Event Experiences Erin McElroy, and Spiro’s Global Chief Marketing Officer Carley Faircloth uncovered opportunities for savvy brand marketers to use AI to strengthen relationships with their key audiences.

Here’s what you can glean from their conversation at Brand Innovators’ Leadership in Brand Marketing Summit at SXSW:

Using AI to evoke empathy

When you move past consuming to creating, real brand impact can happen.

“You can always tell when you’re watching a marketing campaign that’s really just trying to sell you and then you can tell when you really feel something — when you’re really moved,” McElroy said. “To truly get the value out of AI, we need to continue like we have with other technologies to be creators… We don’t want to be consumers; we want to be creators of AI.”



In a digital brand experience, IMB’s watsonx Assistant team used the company’s AI to simulate what it’s like to be a call center agent — which can be a frustrating experience for both the agent and the customer.

Using gameification, The Contact Center Challenge, placed users in the role of the customer service assistant. For the average participant, it took roughly 45 seconds for frustration to mount over the volume of requests coming at them.

That’s when the watsonx Assistant stepped in, automating some tasks with complex look-ups, natural language and self-serve answers. At the game’s end, participants were shown how they did without the AI, how much the assistant helped when they began drowning in requests, and how much easier it would have been to use AI from the beginning.

A recent McKinsey & Company report revealed that Gen AI can boost productivity in customer care functions by 30% to 40%. But it’s not just a benefit for the company: Gen AI increased issue resolution by 14% an hour and reduced handle time by 9%.

The research shows that automating tasks that don’t require the human touch enables contact center and customer service agents to focus on understanding customers and what they need.

Yet, the numbers don’t give you the feeling of mounting stress as you struggle to handle calls —or the sigh of relief when the tech streamlined tasks. IBM’s experience did. And that more powerfully cemented into B2B customers’ minds and hearts that AI can help customer service agents better focus on and delight customers.

McElroy shared that a COO from a large retail brand went through the experience, commenting that they didn’t understand the value with previous sales pitches of the technology. But after completing the game? “Now I get it,” the leader told McElroy.

“That just meant a lot to me in terms of the power of our experiences,” said McElroy. “We really have an opportunity as experiential marketers to help people understand what’s going on…people remember that, more than a great pitch.”

Experientializing tech to cultivate emotion and relationships

“Whenever we get a brief around a particular novel technology, the challenge for us on [the agency side] is really experientializing that technology in a way that will break through,” said Faircloth. “At the end of the day, it’s about the experience.”

McElroy agreed, adding that it comes down to what you as a brand marketer are trying to accomplish and how it meets your business goals.

“We become more effective marketers and more effective businesspeople when we step back and look at what is truly going to bring value — not just sell, promote or perform,” McElroy said. “The things that perform the best are the things have heart and have that authenticity built into it.”

Faircloth pointed out that it’s all about intention when it comes to the authenticity in your approach.

“It really is about knowing the audience,” Faircloth said. “It’s something we as marketers all strive for and talk about. We do a lot of work understanding the psychographics and demographics—all the things that play into it. We all have to tap into the mind of our consumer.”

McElroy said that understanding your audience is a crucial fundamental for effective AI efforts.

“What is the why behind what you’re doing?” she asked. “When you inform your strategy that way, then the tools start to work for you.”

Moving from AI experimentation to practical brand application

There’s another crucial element to using AI effectively in brand experiences and marketing campaigns: Integration across your organization.

“Surrounding AI, there’s a lot of talk a lot about benefits, risks, data and the whole “garbage in/garbage aspect,” Faircloth said. “What we don’t hear a lot about is organizational preparedness — from experimental, to competent, to adoption, to integration.”

That is often a sticking point, turning the tech from a flash in the pan to a consistent strategy and way of working adopted throughout the organization. How can you move forward on the path of AI integration, regardless of the industry you’re in?

McElroy says it all comes down to being intentional with your strategy and understanding what kind of data you want to capture.

“I think a best practice, no matter what platform you use, is one that will let you own your data because it becomes your intellectual property,” Erin said.

She continued: “This allows you to be a value creator with AI, because you’re taking your own enterprise data and putting it together with the data your [AI] platform offers to create something new.”

It’s important to point out that though data is paramount, it won’t replace marketers actively tuning into and understanding audience behavior shifts.

“That to me is the winning proposition,” McElroy said. “When you’re listening, you end up with a good result.”


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