Huge Companies, Low Profiles, and a Future Charted by AI

By Matt Owens, Partner and Chief Design and Innovation Officer, Athletics

In trying to uncover the next big thing, marketers may be missing something more fundamental: the already big thing. Throughout the world, you can find massive companies living below the radar, providing enterprise-level services to well-known clients, often without a murmur in public.

A good example of this is media solutions provider, NEP, which quietly sits behind the camera at a wide array of public events. The company employs more than 2200 engineers alone, connecting people to sports, e-sports, feature films, and live entertainment across the globe — and has been doing it for 35 years.

This is not an ad for NEP. Many similar brands are suddenly much more in our view. Part of that is due to their size and global scale (they’re hard to miss), but it’s also increasingly due to AI. A quiet but huge company like Broadcom is now using AI at scale to connect everyone and everything. Energy group ABB is increasingly transforming the power space through AI and robotics. In its own way, each is helping reimagine mobility, bringing sustainability and automation together, and building the next generation of digital infrastructure; these companies are enormous, consequential, and even world-shifting.

They’re also largely under-branded. While marketers often speak of brands as an essential building block of value, these companies tend to be more infrastructure-focused, necessary rather than loud. They rely on smaller communications teams rather than large advertising agencies to get their message across.

But this is set to change. Their competition is no longer other service providers, but companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon that know how to connect. NEP, for example, has splashed across the public often in the past few years, including when one of its divisions provided special effects for Disney’s hit show The Mandalorian, while another started producing live events for Major League Soccer’s Season Pass. Even if these companies are not directly serving consumers, they matter to them—and not a little.

That will eventually require them to build consumer trust, create their own mythology, and install internal cultures that reflect external messaging — in other words, to build powerful, distinct brands that are far more visible than before.

So how can they do this? According to Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner’s recent How Big Things Get Done, when large organizations need to move, it’s best to start with easily achievable projects and then build them out. In this case, that involves several key steps.

Bring scale to bear. The same behaviors that apply to making large-scale projects come in on time and on budget can easily be applied to brand building and communications. Senior leaders can instill a team-based ethos with a vision to plan fully and break goals down into smaller more modular steps that can be replicated.

Enhanced  visibility and storytelling. As these brands inevitably become more visible and relevant, they’ll need to get their people on the same page. Brand building sits at the intersection of value-creation, market perception, and an organization’s purpose and values. To be most effective, brand systems have to be thought-through, modular, and nimble.

Brand governance. Yes, the boring stuff matters. I’ve looked through a half dozen of these companies’ branding systems, so you don’t have to. Overall, they tend to show up in different places, with very different looks and feels. A good counterexample is IBM, which has published its entire design language, not just for its employees and vendors to use, but as a model for its clients to study and understand how to manage brand systems.

Incorporate multilingual approaches. Multilingual branding is just what it says: a geo-agnostic approach that doesn’t speak one language first and translate offerings at scale. The basic idea is that you make sure the core idea remains the same, while flexibly adapting stories, language, and even look and feel to different geographies. The gold standard in this regard includes multinationals like Coke and McDonald’s, which don’t merely translate their brand ideas, but use local preferences, traditions, and cultural practices to reinterpret not just their campaigns but even their product lines.

Lead with AI. Luckily, large, technology-led companies already understand that AI is a process that takes training, investment, and optimization. IThey need to start now to realize the value of AI for asset creation and personalized communication. A good example is MasterCard, which is using AI to analyze billions of online conversations to surface and understand the significance of micro trends.

No process alone builds a great brand or tells a great story. These companies may seem more essential than inspirational right now, but no brands touch humanity more. They are what connects, enables, and makes everything work. Each has big human stories to tell, and identifying the most salient ones will be the first task. It may be a lot of work, but the time has come.

Tags: AI