Podcast: Selling Science Smartly: IBM Watson Campaign

In 2011, a cognitive supercomputing system developed at IBM named “Watson” was pitted against, and subsequently defeated, two of the most successful Jeopardy! game-show contestants of all time. A project five years in the making, Watson was initially developed as a “Grand Challenge” successor to Deep Blue, the machine that beat Gary Kasparov at chess, and was a prototype for DeepQA, a question/answer natural language analysis architecture. Since his Jeopardy! triumph, however, Watson has been successfully applied towards improving health care, oncology, business applications and soon enough… even education. At the same time that IBM has been expanding Watson’s cognitive computing abilities, they’ve also been brilliantly marketing him to the general public through a series of traditional and interactive ads.

As part of our ongoing “Selling Science Smartly” series, we analyze the Watson campaign in more depth and feature an exclusive and insightful podcast conversation with the IBM marketing team behind it.

Campaign: Watson
Agency: IBM/Ogilvy&Mather
Industry: Cognitive computing/information technology

Quick thought experiment. Name at least a couple of technology advertising campaigns (not including Apple) that have been so memorable and clever, they either compelled you to buy a product or piqued your curiosity to learn more about it. Chances are, you can’t. For one thing, outside of computers and gadgets, “big picture” technologies like cloud computing, artificial intelligence and artificial neural networks have still not become fully mainstream. For another, like many high-end sophisticated science applications, it is difficult to communicate such abstract applications in bite-size pieces. IBM’s recent Watson campaign, centered around its powerful cognitive question/answer (QA) computing device, defies conventional tech branding. It’s instantaneously attention-getting. It features Watson’s attributes by incorporating one of the hallmark rules of film-making/screenwriting: show, don’t tell. Most importantly, humans are the centerpiece of each commercial/spot, which is an important antidote to Hollywood-induced fears of robotic takeover and a more realistic depiction of how we will really subsume AI into our existence through small steps.

Here is Watson enjoying rather humorous banter with Jeopardy! whiz Ken Jennings:

Here is Watson explaining his capacity for improving digital health and diagnostics in medicine to an adorable young patient:

Recently, Watson displayed his technological versatility in an interactive campaign where he helped design a supermodel’s “Cognitive Dress.” The dress was equipped with lighting to monitor real-time social media reactions and represents an example of augmenting the creative process with technology in the future.

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Model Karolina Kurkova wears a dress designed with input from the Watson cognitive machine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2016 in New York City. Photo courtesy of IBM/Getty Images

Why It’s Good Science Advertising

Whether he’s enjoying a one-on-one conversation with virtually any human, designing dresses or helping people cook gourmet meals, Watson comes across as versatile, approachable and interactive. Soon, Watson will even produce meta-advertising, in the form of cognitive marketing — enabling consumers to have remote brand-related conversations with Watson Ads suited to their individual needs and questions about a particular product. As illustrated in the video below, the Watson campaign, like the technology itself, represents a total commitment to brand awareness, IBM’s core mission and the eventual potential of the cognitive technology device. And, it’s memorable!

Why It Works

With a cognitive machine as powerful and versatile as Watson, brand messaging presents two major challenges: succinctly communicating the complex framework of solutions for consumers, businesses and institutions, and doing so in an emotionally engaging manner. Watson succeeds on both accounts. He describes his capabilities from a first-person perspective, not through omniscient narration. He functions through interlocution, which lends an intimacy to the commercials — any one of us might find ourselves interacting with Watson and requesting his help. He is fun and funny; brilliant yet adorably inept in human slang; cheeky yet serious; always helpful, curious and collaborative. In essence, Watson has been branded as an anthropomorphic companion instead of a sterile robot. 21st Century technology will inevitably be personal, inclusive and integrated into our lives. The Watson campaign feels like the realistic unveiling of the cognitive computing era. Take a look at Watson’s conversation with Ridley Scott about artificial intelligence, as portrayed in Hollywood (referenced in our podcast below):

What Other Science Campaigns Can Learn From This One

Creative risk-taking is essential for successfully marketing sophisticated technology, not just in the content itself, but in how it is crafted. In the immediate predecessor to the Watson campaign, a series of spots entitled “Made With IBM” traveled across three continents to share short, documentary-like stories about cross-applications of a panoply of IBM technology and its relevance in today’s connected world. Accordingly, the aggregate Watson ads and interactive spots present an engaged, personalized look at how cognitive computing will facilitate faster, more improved and easier tasks in all areas of human life in the future while making an immediate impact in several industries right now. Indeed, IBM’s commitment to incorporating storytelling across all of its content extends to the unusual move of hiring screenwriters to join its marketing team. IBM also partnered with the TED Institute for multi-year thought leadership symposium where critical ideas related to technology and data-driven computing, along with the ways they could change the world, were shared by leading experts. In the process, this multi-platform approach not only taps into the next generation of consumers, but slowly assuages understandable reservations about artificial intelligence.

To help gain insight into the creative development and thought process behind the Watson campaign, as well as the greater context of using didactic advertising and thought leadership to inform about complex technology, ScriptPhD.com was joined for a conversation with IBM’s Vice President of Branded Content and Global Creative Ann Rubin and Watson Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Gold. Listen to our podcast below:

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ScriptPhD.com covers science and technology in entertainment, media and advertising. Hire our consulting company for creative content development. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Subscribe to our podcast on SoundCloud or iTunes.



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