Marketing teams are turning to AI, machine learning, and automation as the hot new trends. The pitch is enticing: use technology to work faster, cheaper, and potentially discover new opportunities. Marketers are eating it up, funneling budgets into platforms that promise better targeting, automated creative, and marketing campaign optimization.

But in the rush to AI, many brands are missing the bigger opportunity – revitalizing an investment in the social sciences like anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

Don’t get me wrong, technology can provide some real efficiencies. AI may help trim costs, free up labor, and uncover new markets. But it has severe limitations when it comes to building brands and influencing human behavior.

Just look at some of the most successful marketing campaigns of the past couple of decades. You’ll find the social sciences woven throughout them as the key to human insight.

Coca-Cola’s “Open Happiness” campaign tapped into the cultural desire for optimism and connection after the 2008 recession. Nike’s “Believe in Something”ad celebrated human willpower and being part of something greater than yourself. Mattel turned a doll into a pop culture icon by pulling every marketing lever it could to make “Barbie” the defining movie of the year, and perhaps the decade.

In each case, it wasn’t technology driving the success.

CNN recently covered the new Coke Zero mystery flavor, Y3000, which was “co-created with AI,” and Coca-Cola shared how AI fit into the process. CNN reported:

“The company relied on regular old human insights by finding out what flavors people associate with the future. Then it used AI to help figure out flavor pairings and profiles, a spokesperson said. For the product’s packaging… Coca-Cola used AI-generated images to create a mood board for inspiration.”

To spell it out, that means the AI sourced inspiration for Coke’s creative team. Human insights got the ball rolling, and human judgment determined what would go to market. AI’s pivotal role was speeding up the process and sourcing new ideas.

“A hammer or saw doesn’t replace the carpenter,” said Jonathan Nelson, senior digital marketing manager at the American Marketing Association, as reported in CMSWire. “It’s lacking that intuition. That’s where I think the human element is really important for novel thought. AI is really good at creating a collage, but humans have the ability to create something entirely new and original.”

What makes such a product or campaign a success is the prioritizaiton of understanding people and the cultural zeitgeist. The social sciences hold the key to uncovering the context driving consumer decisions. Fields like ethnography and observational research can reveal the human stories and desires that numbers alone miss.

We need to reorient our focus as marketers. To better leverage the increasingly powerful technological tools at our fingertips, we need to truly understand the ‘why’ of human behavior – not just the ‘what’ and the when.’

The brands that will win are those investing in observational research, ethnography studies, and on-the-ground immersions to gain consumer understanding. They will bring social scientists into the marketing process, not just engineers.

This human intelligence holds the key to success. Technology has a clear role in marketing, but it’s not a substitute for understanding the human stories and motivations that drive us. Brands that embrace the social sciences will deliver growth and loyalty that no AI can replicate.

It’s time for brands to rethink their priorities. Brands can’t risk being left behind by ignoring AI, and few would advise brands to sit on the fence as such a technological force gains steam. But AI won’t build lasting brands, and AI will at best simulate connections with consumers. The real opportunity is in forging real connections, and social sciences hold the keys to unlocking that.

By Kingsley Taylor