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Episode 81

Future Of Branding: AI, Machine Learning & Human Touch

Steve Red
Co-Chief Creative Officer at Mod Op

Step into the future of branding with Steve Red and Tessa Burg. They unravel how your company can forge deeper connections with your audience through authentic storytelling. Discover the secrets to transforming data points into compelling stories that do more than sell—they create authentic brand experiences.

“Our definition of a brand is a promise of an experience. So ultimately, a brand is the sum of everything.”

Creativity and analytics come together as we discuss how to harness AI and ML not just to streamline operations but to infuse marketing with insights that drive growth and resonate on a human level. Learn how to make data your ally in the creative process, and shape campaigns that speak directly to the hearts and minds of your ideal customers.

You’ll hear ideas on how to combine AI with the human touch to tell stories that are as data-driven as they are emotionally charged. Join us to redefine what branding means in the age of technology, and discover a new era of customer engagement.

Highlights From This Episode:

  • Living brand values
  • Intersection of data and creativity
  • Storytelling as a tool for connection
  • AI and ML in brand strategy
  • Actionable insights from data
  • Optimizing marketing with AI
  • Real-world examples and insights

Watch the Live Recording

Full Episode Transcripts

Tessa Burg: Hello, and welcome to another episode of “Leader Generation”, brought to you by Mod Op. I’m Tessa Berg, your host, and CTO, and I’m joined today by our co-Chief Creative Officer at Mod Op, Steve Red. Steve, thanks for joining us.

Steve Red: I’m happy to be here.

Tessa Burg: So, we’re gonna jump in today about behind the power of brand and creative. We spend a lot of time on this show talking about AI and ML. So this is going to be a nice break to really emphasize why big ideas, brand creative experiences are so important. But before we dive in, tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Mod Op.

Steve Red: Cool, so I just recently joined Mod Op. I founded an agency called Red Tettemer O’Connell Partners about 26 years ago. And we were a creative agency, founded around two of the most important things I believe in in marketing and kind of in life, and they are belief and conviction. So we built an agency around setting your beliefs in stone and then committing to them. And we preach that to our clients as well. I think that’s at the core of great brands and great products. They’re companies that believe in themselves and believe in a certain set of values and follow ’em all the way down the path. So yeah, that’s what we did.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, those are two very big statements, and I think a lot of companies find creating their values to be really easy, but then actually living them to be much harder.

Steve Red: I think that’s.

Tessa Burg: Yeah. So what are some of the things that you do in your process to kind of, and I think a lot of it has to do with like lack of confidence or sometimes maybe not realizing how important living your values really is. So what are some of the things you’ve done in your process to help brands understand that they can live their values and that there is a business reason for doing so?

Steve Red: Well, first we spend a lot of time there. We just, that’s where we start. We always, a core piece of our strategic process is called finding the irresistible truth. And that truth is something that is at once immutable to the brand. So it’s always been there and it will always be there, but it also has to be irresistible. It has to be something that people want in their lives. It has to be something that they wanna share with people and ultimately they wanna buy, they want to spend money on. So like finding that truth, we often dig in and if a company doesn’t have those values in in place, we help define them and they’re always there. Even if they haven’t been written down on paper, they’re always there because people do things for a reason, and so you just need to find those strong reasons. But we spend a lot of time like really nailing and refining and putting down what a company and a brand believes in. And we make sure that everybody in the room, and agency and client, and we talk about the idea of being the boss. And it’s the kind of the great leveler when you say, this is what we believe in. This is the idea that we’re going to build and make come to life in as many great ways as we possibly can. That becomes like the level set between everybody. So there’s no us versus them. There’s no department versus department. Everybody lives in service of one thing. Everybody’s pointing in the same direction as we say. And everything, we always talk about, everything becomes easier because you always know where, you know where you need to ladder back to. So you always have a touchstone to go back to and say, is this the right partnership? Is this the right campaign, is this the right new product? Is this the right new audience? Like, everything ladders back to that belief. So it just makes everything in business much more efficient, much more connected, and ultimately it tries business that way because you don’t have to spend time going back to the well every time to say like, how should we evaluate this? Or how should we go forward on this front? It’s always connected back to that belief. So that was a long blabbering bit, but that’s why we think it’s so important. And that’s how I think it can help businesses grow.

Tessa Burg: I agree and I think you hit on sort of the core tenant that brought Red Tettemer and Mod Op together, and that is our shared belief that AI data and creativity is what not only can differentiate us as an agency, but give our brands and our clients an indisputable advantage over others in the market. And we’ve been using AI and ML and our business, all agencies have access to some of the same tool sets that are powered by AI and ML. And what we’ve discovered and what we’ve experienced firsthand is it really is the brand, the creative, the experience. And if you start with that at the core, you can get more out of that tool set and you can drive that better performance. So tell us a little bit, how do you describe brand? Like if we just focus on that word is a differentiator, what does that mean?

Steve Red: Yeah, that’s great because everybody has a slightly different description of what brand means and our definition of brand is a brand is a promise of an experience. So a brand ultimately is the sum of everything that a company does, that a brand does, coming together to create an experience that people come to expect. So when someone calls in and somebody answers the phone, that experience should be the same thing as when you see a commercial on TV. It should be the same experience that when you experience a digital ad coming at you on your phone or your laptop, that should be the same when you come into the, if there’s a brick and mortar store, the experience would be the same when you walk into that store, like across the brand, all those touch points should be consistent around this experience that the brand wants to express and to get across and for their customers to feel and kind of have in their hearts and minds. The edge that it gives companies when you have a brand that has conviction and has belief at its root is it’s that much more, it’s that much faster for a consumer to buy in because once you know what a brand stands for, whether you see that brand in a lower funnel banner ad or you see them in some grand experience activation somewhere, you’re leaning in. And if you don’t know that belief, you don’t understand what that brand stands for, it’s always like meeting somebody new at a party, like you don’t know whether you’re gonna buy in or not because you’re not sure what they stand for. So.

Tessa Burg: Yeah.

Steve Red: We always say like, it’s important to have that brand experience expressed all through the purchase funnel. And I’m probably one of the only creatives you ever talk to that talks a lot about the purchase funnel, but we say the messaging that you get at the bottom of the purchase funnel is only it’s most effective when it’s attached to a grand, a grand belief at the top of the purchase funnel. Because once I see that kind of ask for the order messaging, if I can automatically click and say, oh, I like what they stand for, yeah, let me consider this. If I’m just seeing the ask for the order without any kind of context or notion of what that experience is, I’m much less likely to kind of lean in and click.

Tessa Burg: I don’t wanna put you on the spot, but I love that definition of brand and I very much appreciate that you talked about the purchase funnel, especially for us coming from the data side, like we love to pour over that data. Where were those moments of interaction and inspiration taking place? How do we optimize it? Do you have any examples of where you’ve been able to achieve that at its best?

Steve Red: I think the best brand examples are really like, that we have in our kind of portfolio, are super simple insights that drive a huge idea. But those insights came out of like a mountain of data that we, and through digging and talking to people and refining and redefining you find the the right insight. It’s hard, but you do. We’ll get to how AI can maybe help us sift faster and more efficiently. But with Kellogg’s, we worked for a brand called MorningStar Farms, which is a veggie protein plant protein brand that makes like veggie burgers and veggie nuggets and veggie corn dogs, like all the stuff that you like, but it’s made with plant protein. So we found an insight in the very beginning of our work with them that, and this is going back maybe six or seven years, so the time was slightly different, but we found an insight that two thirds of the country wanted to eat less meat in their diet. So that said a couple things to us. One, that it was no longer a niche, niche trend. It wasn’t like it wasn’t a thing that was happening in small pockets of people. It had transcended and become part of gen pop.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, is this like the flexitarian movement?

Steve Red: Yeah, pretty much. So as plant protein was being more and more adopted, we found that most people in the country wanted to lean into veg in some way. So we use that insight to say, okay, this is a wave that’s happening. Most, the majority of people want to be part of it. How can we take this Kellogg’s own brand, so this big food brand and take advantage of the fact that most people are leaning in, but there’s still things that are getting in their way. So we created a strategy that was called Democratize Meatless. That strategy leaned into the fact that MorningStar farms, as opposed to like complicated kinds of veggie recipes and the like, that kind of scared people away, we said, “Lean into the fact that you make the simple, awesome foods that people love.” You make hamburgers, but you make ’em out of veggie protein. You make hot dogs, you make chicken nuggets, you make, like I said, you make corn dogs, you make these things that all Americans love, but you make them in a way that they can get, they can kind of fulfill their desire to get into this world that they haven’t been in before. So using that one insight drove our whole, the whole way we thought about the audience, it drove the whole way we thought about the master company Kellogg’s, it drove our whole thinking about their portfolio of product. It informed everything that we kind of looked at in the brandscape and created this campaign around inviting everyone in. So our kind of whole notion was, it doesn’t matter if you’re gonna be a Meatless Monday or you’re gonna be full vegan, everybody’s allowed under this tent. And so that’s one that was, that’s one place where, and the right insight drove everything. And the other one was with a company called Planet Fitness that we found that 80% of people don’t join gyms because they feel intimidated. So with that single, again, with that single insight, we said that this gym should all be all about an atmosphere where people don’t feel threatened or intimidated. So all the advertising, all the messaging was about messaging the things that Planet Fitness wasn’t. So we showed the opposite of the environment, the intimidation, the skimpy clothes and people throwing weights and people grunting, and all the things that happened in gym that made people feel uncomfortable. We showed in our advertising and then we created a whole community called Planet of Triumphs that showed all the little triumphs that people had at the gyms so we could celebrate what Planet Fitness was and we could show people what Planet Fitness wasn’t. But again, it was all driven off that one insight and it informed how we looked at their, once again, important how we looked at their audience. It informed how we looked at their gyms and whether we should create more contemporary versions of them. It informed how we looked at partnerships and what partnerships they could stand for. So one of their partnerships was the anti-bullying, which is a high and noble cause to stand for for a gym. But when you look at a gym that’s all about fighting against intimidation and people threatening other people, then it’s a natural thing to say, okay, at the highest level that can be about anti-bullying. So again, like finding that single data point that can be so crystallized, but so informative to every nuance of that brand and create an experience that is consistent across the landscape, that’s the power ultimately of data and creatives being able to latch onto the right pieces of data to create big ideas.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, both of those resonated with me because definitely picked up the Flexitarian lifestyle. I felt like at one point in my life I was meatatarian and started having like all the crazy symptoms of someone who ate way too much meat. But when you are in college, young and poor, if you can go to any Taco Tuesday or Wing Thursday and some other free food in between, you’re gonna do it, it’s all meat. Then you hit like a point where you’re like, this is terrible. I look terrible and then that’s what drives you to the gym. And I would just try and find the darkest room to watch Sports Center. But I love that you hit on those universal truths where kind of everybody’s had those moments where they want to feel like they belong or are a part of something. And seeing the ad is more than an ad, it’s a message that resonates with them and says, Hey, we have the solution here. Like, this might be for you and at least entices them enough to try.

Steve Red: Yep, yeah. And we always say like, it’s not about the ad. Like what’s that? Back to the brand experience, like what’s that overall experience that you can promise that becomes true no matter where they come into the brand?

Tessa Burg: So you touched on one aspect that you hope there’s an area where AI and ML can help to start inspire, but really to consolidate all that data and expedite the process a little bit more. And I know to date and there’s already been a lot of changes in the way we communicate and in the way people experience and find brands. Have you already started to evolve your process just for the introduction of new social media channels for the different ways Gen Z communicates compared to millennials? Tell me a little bit about that.

Steve Red: I think we’re just like on the, like a lot of places, we’re on the beginning edge of using AI and figuring out how it can support our work. But the thing that excites me about being part of the Mod Op team is just like those examples that we just kind of talked about, finding that holy grail insight can be so important and have so much impact on finding the right idea. It’s kind of everything but, you know and I know like the word data is thrown around so loosely and there’s all sorts of desire from clients and agencies, but also I’ll just speak from the client side to have their marketing work verified by data. I mean, a lot of people talk, a lot of people, a lot of people talk about being data-driven companies and data-informed, and it’s just data like as a buzzword almost thrown out. There are very few companies, and I mean no disrespect to anybody ’cause I think everybody’s dealing with the same problem, that really can leverage and understand data to the point where it informs their work on a daily basis or on a like almost on a minute-by-minute basis. And there’s this kind of shining city on a hill that I think everybody imagines where you’re looking at data and you instantly know what to do with it and how it can optimize or how it can kind of refine your message or point you to a new audience or whatever. But I don’t think it’s been done yet. No one, no company, no agency has unlocked a way for clients or for the creative department or for brand managers to take that data in an ongoing way and seamlessly integrate it into how they’re moving the brand forward, to seamlessly use it to fuel the next idea or the next product innovation. Everyone has the data available, very few have the ability to distill it down to those kinds of insights that I just talked about with those two brand kind of examples.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, I agree. It’s funny, almost every place I’ve worked, actually, I think it is every single place I’ve worked, I have worked on a dashboard project where the CEO or executive leader was 100% convinced that if we made the best universal dashboard that that would give us the data, the insights, the what we needed to grow the business. And it’s the concept of having data to grow business is not wrong, but the same problem surfaces up every time. And that is that we forget about context and we don’t build to scale and we assume that the things we think we want, we know we want, are the right things. Like something that when we think about the power of AI and ML is that it’s been trained off of tons of data and we don’t realize as humans that we are making assumptions. We’re like, oh, well it’s these factors about a customer that are most important. So that’s what we’re gonna measure and we’re gonna create this visual and we’re gonna pump it out to everybody. And once we measure that, then this insight will come. So I think it’s an exciting challenge to, instead of going into it wanting to build a dashboard is to instead think about what, just start with simply analyzing all the data that you have and then being very intentional about the features you select to create a model and see what types of populations break out. But I feel like it’s more about having that process down and that bridge built than it is in the past, again, past companies, I feel like anyone who’s worked with me lived the nightmare of the universal dashboard. We would spend so much engineering time on this, only to have it like really be used for like two months. Because the other problem with dashboards is it presents the same data, it’s just slightly different it’s just trending, but it’s really just the same picture every time.

Steve Red: Exactly.

Tessa Burg: Yeah. And now we have the power for that picture to evolve as the data evolves, and not only that, for it to get smarter and to get better.

Steve Red: Totally and yeah that’s, I mean, exactly my point, like a dashboard is such a sexy kind of idea, like a dashboard that’s gonna give you an overview, a constant living overview of everything that’s going on in your business. And we’ve built them before, just like you. And there’s great excitement around it when we offer it up. And then it’s never used. It’s never used or it’s used improperly or the different departments or divisions of the company don’t wanna plug into it because this is proprietary or we can’t get this, or this is owned by somebody else or whatever it is. So the inputs aren’t right, and it just becomes this big white elephant that everybody wanted, but nobody knows how to use. So back to the notion of really if it comes in dashboard form, great, but the important part of the process that I don’t think anyone has figured out, and I think we can beat the company to figure it out, is interpreting that dashboard and harnessing it to tell stories like whether they’re product stories or advertising stories or innovation stories, whatever your part in that brand experience is using that data easily and simply to tell the story that needs to be told about that portion of the brand experience, that would be powerful.

Tessa Burg: Yeah and that is what I’m most excited about is the storytelling, because exactly as the examples you gave, that’s where people see themselves and especially when you sort of reveal to them a truth that maybe they just couldn’t articulate, but that they’re actually living. So they’re like, I’m experiencing this right now, but I didn’t articulate it in that way. And there are moments we’re using AI and ML tools in our business right now where we have like the aha where you didn’t even know you’re going to making an assumption about what might work, not work on which channel you thought that Instagram was gonna knock it outta the park because before we ran this campaign, we had all this data that said, this is how this customer interacts on Instagram. But then once you’re using, like in our case, a cross channel attribution model that serves where the ad is most effective, you start to see that actually that might be a great organic brand discovery tool, but when people are looking to buy, they’re looking for more reviews. They’re more in like a Reddit community or on your actual website. And now we need conversion optimization. But what I love most about it is that that tells a story to us and there’s always that aha, and then we can put that data back out to the customer and tell a story to them and give them sort of that visibility into, oh my gosh, I’m not sure I totally realized like that’s where I was in this journey and thanks for creating this experience that makes me feel a part of something bigger.

Steve Red: Yeah, I was totally nodding along with everything you were just saying. I think the other thing that becomes a challenge in building out a consistent and compelling brand experience is all the different team members taking the master idea and breaking it down for their specific channel. So something that works, it’s just to the point you were making Tessa, that something that works as a grand video on streaming or on broadcast doesn’t work at all on TikTok and doesn’t work the same way on Instagram and doesn’t work the same way on their website and doesn’t work the same way on Instagram as an organic post versus an actual paid post. So you want a certain voice of the brand to be specific to organic posting on Instagram, and then you wanna have a different slice of the same voice on a paid post on Instagram. So all those different, to think about how the big idea is sliced and diced to go into all those different platforms and channels appropriately and in the most compelling way to think that AI can, can come in once we have that big idea and help us do that in the most efficient manner and in the most fluid and like, real time way, that would be incredible. I feel like as a creative. Because once you have, you land on that big idea, the scariest thing is to see it like not manifested in the right way in the right places. So.

Tessa Burg: It’s a really long way on the technical side too, I mean, I can’t tell you how long I’ve spent building platforms that facilitate rapid testing and different types of AB testing and making sure that we are reaching statistical significance before driving decisions. And I feel like a lot of the AI/ML tools have made like straight up AB testing obsolete. You have to trust, you have to know that you are using the right data set and you have to know that the big idea came from valid data to begin with and that it really is the human creativity and the human ability to add that layer of context in to correctly tune the tools and the models. And otherwise if you just, like anyone can stand up a Meta campaign right now and there’s tons of AI and ML tools in there, but what makes campaigns the most successful are the people who understand what’s most important for this AI/ML to optimize. And that is to, one, allow it to optimize, but two, to understand the context of that channel in which the creative is being served. And that’s, I think, gonna be the beauty as we continue this journey is bringing the creative expertise together with the technical expertise together with the folks who know how to do very strategic digital marketing, media planning and websites, and use it to bring the experience to life for that brand across any channel and across any interaction point.

Steve Red: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And I think even beyond that, it can help clients take bigger swings because if we can come in, I mean, I’m a creative and so I’ve grown up in this business selling ideas to clients and I know how hard it is to like trust, especially something that’s out of the ordinary or something that’s not been done before, it’s not been said like this exactly. And that’s what makes it powerful. But that’s also what makes it hard to buy because what are people gonna think? And this is said differently than other have said it, which is the point of marketing. But if we can go in with the power of AI and really leveraging data to help clients see the truth in an idea, even if it’s unusual, even if it’s off their, a little outside their comfort zone, that’ll be tremendously powerful because helping clients have the trust and the confidence to buy into something that’s a little different than what they’ve been doing will allow them to like put work out into consumer land in a way that breaks through, that makes people pay attention. Which is part of the problem with 90% of the marketing out there these days. It’s not done in a way that makes anybody pay attention. So if you can use data, like I said, to like create a circle of trust between agency and client and between client and idea and allow bigger, bolder work to be out there, that’s only gonna be helpful for brands and businesses.

Tessa Burg: Yes, I agree. This has been a great conversation Steve, and it’s our first of many to come as we do embark on this journey to do what has not been done before. If people have questions for you or they wanna reach you, where can they find you?

Steve Red: They can email me at sred, [email protected], rtop.

Tessa Burg: And you also have [email protected].

Steve Red: I do.

Tessa Burg: Yeah. For those who don’t know, I also get to see over IT.

Steve Red: I’m getting used to my new email. So either email works.

Tessa Burg: Awesome. And then if you wanna hear more episodes of “Leader Generation”, you can find them on modop.com. That’s M-O-D-O-P.com or wherever you listen to podcasts, you can search “Leader Generation”. And until next time, Steve, thanks for joining us and we’ll be chatting again soon.

Steve Red: Thanks Tessa, it was really fun.

Steve Red

Co-Chief Creative Officer at Mod Op
Steve Red, Co-Chief Creative Officer at Mod Op

The founder of Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners, recently acquired by Mod Op, Steve touches virtually everything that goes out of the agency door from a creative and strategic perspective. He believes people are smart and advertising should be too, and that the only real martini is made with gin. Someday … long after his teenagers aren’t teenagers anymore, he’ll settle down and start painting again, which is what his dad says he should have done all along. Steve can be reached at [email protected].