The Rise of the Empathetic Brand: Navigating the Human-Tech Interface

If plotted on a spectrum with synthetic on one side and natural on the other, the optimal middle will represent some sort of human-technological symbiosis, with each complementing, informing, and benefitting the other. We’re not there, yet.

Mike Geraci
July 20, 2023

In the early stages of the tech hype cycles, it is important to wade through the irrational exuberance of technologists––those who orient around technology as the idea, instead of the enabler of the idea––in order to stay grounded in first principles of innovation. 

So when my tech-focused feeds exploded in celebration because ChatGPT could play Minecraft…I sensed that the technologists were once again too far out over their skis (see Metaverse, NFT, Web3…) and it was time to, as ski instructors and race coaches will hammer on, get back into an athletic stance.

I was reminded of this as I listened to Scott Galloway challenge Kara Swisher on her praise for Apple’s new Vision Pro iFace, when he interrupted Kara’s list of features to ask, “What problem does it solve?” This is a first principles question that enables a relatively rational measure of the use and value of technology: Is it necessary or is it just neat, a novelty?

Does it expand our possibilities and lead to new forms of human expression, creativity, and innovation, or is it the next digital dopamine distraction? 

Spoiler: For iFace, it’s a novelty, so far.

As with most other technological disruptions, AI and other LLMs can be both needed and neato. They can complement human proclivities and experiences but can’t entirely replace them, as technology lacks rationality, judgment, reflection, and empathy no matter how good the algorithm or how large the language model is.

There is nuanced richness in natural, human relationships that algorithms and LLMs can’t replicate or comprehend. To wit, there’s a reason sales people still exist despite CRM automation, drip sequencing, data dashboards, etc.  It’s the reason Salesforce, the leading CRM, still uses real, live outbound sales humans.

Let’s also keep context in mind. AI platforms such as ChatGPT are game-changing compared to what? The enthusiasm for ChatGPT and other consumer-facing AI platforms is a reaction to how shit the search experience has become, with search results reflecting those who have successfully gamed the algorithm for ranking and commercial purposes but usually not a direct, objective answer to your query. If ChatGPT accomplishes just one thing and kills off cooking/recipe websites the world will be a better place. 

I was listening to Sam Harris interview Nina Schick (it’s a long drive from the NorCal Coast to Wyoming…) and she referred to AI and LLMs as “synthetic media”, which is apt, because the opposite of synthetic is natural. Synthetic also brought to mind oil, and in a way AI’s are oil as they reduce the amount of friction in UX interface between the human and the machine.

If plotted on a spectrum with synthetic on one side and natural on the other, the optimal middle will represent some sort of human-technological symbiosis, with each complementing, informing, and benefitting the other. We’re not there, yet.

And yet, there are obviously promising and valuable use cases for AI technology when it comes to innovation and the human condition, as much as business: mental health, education, assistive technology, writing, and even Category Strategy. LLMs complement our foundational work on the 4 C’s of Strategy (Company, Customers, Competition, and Culture) as an assistant for our quan and qual research that inform and orient a strategy’s foundational pillars. 

As always, the goal of our Category Strategy work is to anchor your business, your pursuit, in the human problem behind the business problem in a way that creates differentiation that is ownable, repeatable, and scalable to enlist customers, talent, and investment.

How we manage the interaction or transaction between human’s enduring quest for meaning and connection and our expanding technology sphere is the challenge and opportunity of our lifetime. There will be a premium for the human touch, especially in tech, for empathetic brands driven by an enduring human quest and not by an algorithm.

Understanding what technology can't do is as important as understanding what it can do. In a landscape oversaturated with tech-driven brands, there will be a growing divide and, indeed, a premium for brands that retain a human touch amidst their technological prowess.


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