Why Brand Wins in the AI Era

As AI commoditizes the tech landscape, companies will need strong brands - not just great products - to stand out and succeed.

In the heart of the 1970s, an innovation from Japan sent shockwaves through the tranquil valleys of Switzerland. The Quartz Crisis was not merely a technological advancement; it was a storm cloud looming over the age-old tradition of Swiss watchmaking. Seiko’s quartz technology made watches remarkably accurate and affordable, rendering the meticulous craftsmanship of Swiss watchmaking seemingly obsolete overnight. 

Yet, amidst the digital onslaught, some Swiss brands not only weathered the storm but danced in the rain.

Over time it became clear that brands like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet didn’t just sell timepieces; they sold heritage, tradition, and a timeless bond with craftsmanship that no quartz technology could replicate. They showed that a strong brand story could create lasting loyalty.

Today’s tech landscape faces a similar shift with the AI revolution.

The last era of tech growth has been defined by Product-Led Growth (PLG) — the idea that acquisition, expansion, conversion, and retention are all driven primarily by the product itself. For example, Figma (sold to Adobe for $20 billion in 2022) took a product-led approach by solving key pain points designers faced like project organization, file management, and real-time collaboration. 

But the days vying for supremacy based on functionality are fading fast as AI commoditization will soon reshape the competitive landscape.

AI and machine learning technologies make it much easier to create software. This will fuel a surge in app and product development, with many similar solutions flooding the marketplace — a scenario reminiscent of how the grocery store used to stock a couple of types of toothpaste, but now Amazon offers thousands. Just look at how many AI writing assistants have cropped up over the last year as proof (there are currently 376 AI writing apps on G2). 

Launching an AI writing app in 2018 would have been a months-long marathon, likely fueled by millions of VC dollars. Now, it’s a sprint that could be done in days and fully bootstrapped. This is just the start. Soon consumers will be able to spin up applications to solve their problems with just a few simple commands and prompts.

Just as the timeless craftsmanship of Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet navigated the quartz storm, today's businesses need strong brands to successfully navigate the wave of AI-driven sameness. As the barriers to creating new apps and products crumble, the market finds itself awash with offerings that, while packaged differently, are functionally alike. This makes it hard for products to stand out like they used to, pushing brand to be the new point of difference.

Building a brand narrative becomes the key (though I'd argue it always has been). Companies must find a way to resonate on a deeper level with consumers, offering not just a product, but a unique ethos that stands tall amidst a sea of functional similarity.

Now, the goal must be to win on trust, mission, and purpose — not petty feature fights. 

The ascent of brand will force a cultural shift within organizations. Product-led companies must tear down the long-standing silos between their brand and product teams, integrating them into one unified engine focused on how they can connect with the customer.

It’s no longer about delivering features for your growth and marketing team to sell. It’s about crafting an encompassing narrative that resonates with your audience, seamlessly intertwining the essence of your brand with the functionality of your product.

Companies like Nike and Apple have built empires by expertly instilling their products with sweeping brand narratives around empowerment and innovation. When you buy from Nike or Apple, you know what to expect. And as Morgan Housel says, “that’s the essence of a brand.”

History is full of parallels. The Quartz Crisis demonstrated that even when technology changes everything a good brand that delivers on its promises can weather the storm. Now, as AI blurs the lines of product differentiation, a similar lesson beckons: it's the strongest brands that will emerge as the winners amidst a sea of functional parity.

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