The Turing Test for brands

In 1950, computer scientist Alan Turing came up with a test for artificial intelligence; what became known as The Turing Test. Could people tell if a machine or a person was ‘talking’ to them? If a computer could fool someone into thinking there was a person in charge, it passed the test.

We’ve ctrl-alt-deleted the Turing Test and turned it upside down for brands in 2014. Can they leave their ad campaigns, brand diagrams and slogans behind to stop writing like robots when they talk to customers? Are there any real people behind the brands?

Sports brands are a good test bed for our experiment. They’re a curious lot when it comes to writing. It’s all high-fives, big name endorsements and ‘go-get-em’ tiger determination. It’s become their default way of writing so it’s hard to think back to when it wasn’t always this shouty testosterone fest.

But that all changed in 1988 when Wieden and Kennedy came up with this slogan for Nike:

These three words set the tone.
These three words set the tone.

One year later, Adidas was all macho headlines (but with lots. of. full stops too). And, 25 years on, not much has changed. Put Asics, Reebok, Nike and Adidas on the same pitch and they’re all coaches screaming pithy, punchy phrases from the sidelines.

Flashforward to 2014: it's gung-ho, nothing's gonna stop you, be the best you can be, ya-da-ya-da...
Flashforward to 2014: it’s gung-ho, nothing’s gonna stop you, be the best you can be, ya-da-ya-da…
Even Sochi’s Winter Olympics has a weird, badly-translated slogan of its own.
Even Sochi’s Winter Olympics has a weird, badly-translated slogan of its own.

Campaigns in the windows of Nike Town and at the Olympics are all very well, but what happens to the way sports brands write on Twitter? Does their tone change when they’re talking to mere mortals in trainers?

Erm, no. It’s still faster, higher, stronger, better, more, more, MORE.

They’re a tiring read. They sound like robots, and it’s hard to spot any people behind the words.

Compare this to real people writing about sport on Twitter (beyond those annoying updates telling the world how many miles they’ve run) and things get a bit more realistic.

Granted, these people are writers as well as runners, but they’re giving the warts n all version of their runs.

So what happens when the two meet and sporty brands talk to the real people on twitter (after all, that’s what it’s all about)?

Nothing changes. More full-throttle tweets. They just do it, and do it and do it.

In a way, you’ve got to admire how consistent they are. Every Tweet sounds like a Nike sports slogan or ad. But they’re also very weird. It’s odd to be that full-on all the time. It’s more like a script than a two-way conversation.

So back to our experiment: if pushed, could they change? Could we find a real person in the team tracksuit? We put Nike to the test, to see what would happen when we asked them a tricky (and true) running question. Our own Turing Test for brands.

Their gung-ho answer came back as fast as Rafael Nadal’s serve…

…but as advice goes, it wasn’t practical and, more importantly, it’s unsafe. You could injure a young baby doing that.

In true Nike style, though, we didn’t give up (if runners never quit, neither do writers), and asked them again.

But all we got this time was silence. The coach had left the building.

This post was sparked by a talk we did at the launch of Like The Wind, a beautiful new magazine for runners.