One of the biggest challenges for PR people working in the hi-tech
arena is the phenomenon of ’the next big thing.’ Communications and
entertainment technology develops at a staggering rate, with some
products having a shelf-life of just weeks. The question is the extent
to which it’s possible for manufacturers to promote a new development
while still maintaining sales and confidence in existing kit.
DVD technology, for example, is undeniably stealing a march on the video
cassette. But how can consumer perception be managed effectively, so
those who have invested in a new video recorder don’t feel short-changed
when they see the same manufacturer promoting new technology and
effectively telling them their new purchase is redundant?
The speed at which new products change from being the newest and the
best to being out of vogue can also be a problem. How can a product such
as a new computer game be promoted effectively, when it is shrouded in
mystery because of competition until it arrives, and then becomes old
hat so quickly?
Sam Harvey is creative director at Abbey Road recording studios, where
she introduces clients to new technologies. ’If a product is over-hyped
the resultant disappointment can lead to bad press,’ she says. After
all, who remembers the Sinclair C5, the Laserdisk and the 3DO games
Harvey points out that a basic communication difficulty is that even in
the professional environment, managing expectations of hi-tech products
can be a ’nightmare’.
Another difficulty is judging how to explain technical details to an
audience of differing abilities and knowledge.
’One of the hardest things is choosing how much to tell someone. You do
not want to be patronising, but you do not want to confuse them either,’
According to Chris Lewis, chief executive of Lewis PR, classic marketing
theory does not really work for hi-tech products that have such short
life-cycles that they are just fads. ’For fads, the traditional media
are not fast enough -you need to use all the paraphenalia of web-based
PR and marketing, such as news groups and web monitoring services. And
you need to be international immediately,’ he says.
Lewis adds that with emerging technologies, one of the key areas to get
the message to is the on-line community.
’With brand new systems, such as MP3, on-line groups are the main areas
of discussion, and companies’ reputations can be made or broken in a
chat room. This has some important implications for PR companies:
’Firstly, executives must become faster and more dialled in to immediate
access media. Secondly, the net is where this media is growing. Stories
can now break in chat rooms and user group sites in a matter of
’In order to create a true brand presence on the internet, agencies need
to be monitoring the whole spectrum of information services and
contributing to chat rooms. Although this may not seem as high-profile
as a full spread in a glossy magazine, its effect on the consumer could
The short lifecycle of a computer game also makes the timing of a PR
campaign crucial. Pete Deverey, account director at MacLaurin
Powerhouse, which does the PR for software titles which run on Sega
Dreamcast, says: ’Before a game is released interest is built up in the
specialist media, starting about five to six months before. More
information and images are gradually released, and interviews with the
developers are set up.
’The problem with games is that the release date sometimes changes at
the last minute which makes things very hard to plan. You really need
the reviews to be published the month it is out, but this is hard as you
are working on long lead times with some magazines,’ he says.
According to Martin Forrest, a director of Cubitt Consulting, another
way to support these types of products is to concentrate on the brand,
and emphasise the evolving nature of the technology.
’Managing products with a short life-cycle is difficult. You have to
keep pushing the core brand and make sure that it maintains its core
values, but still focus on the change. The product has to be positioned
as evolving in relation to its core brand values,’ he says.
Agencies in the hi-tech sector agree that new technology does not have
to present a threat to older kit, since consumers differ in the way they
respond to these types of products. Consumers are either early adopters,
early mainstream majority, or mainstream majority and these groups need
to be targeted separately.
Sue Rizzello, business group director at Edelman PR says: ’There is an
adoption curve for new technologies with the early consumers taking the
risk, and others being more conservative. This creates an opportunity to
market at different levels to different audiences. Some companies manage
to keep a number of product lines moving at the same time - they are
basically the same product, but they are targeted at different
The early adopters are typically male and aged between 24 and 35. They
are reached through the pages of the hi-tech consumer press and the
men’s press. Hyping up the product to this audience is generally about
news, maybe using a celebrity launch.
Katie Kemp, president of August.One Communications, says the early
adopters are a relatively easy target. Maintaining the interest for the
later mass market is harder, she says, and requires more creativity.
Lewis breaks the potential target market down even more simply. ’In
terms of marketing new products against old, it is the nature of
technology to be constantly improving, and most consumers are aware of
this. There are generally two types of buyers in this area - the fad
buyers and the cautious buyers. Fad buyers will usually snap up the
latest products, regardless of it having yet to be proven in the
marketplace, and will always strive to get brand new gadgets, even if
this means that it replaces an existing product.
’On the other hand, cautious buyers will wait until there has been
enough mainstream acceptance, particularly among manufacturers, before
they make a purchase. This was the case with CDs, and although the
format has only really been popular for ten years, it is so widely used
now that consumers will only buy products to complement, not replace
When a client needs to raise awareness of the new products coming along
while still generating income from existing product lines, this can mean
two teams within an agency working in parallel. One team will be working
on early adopters with the new product, while the other will stay
on-message with the existing product for the mass market.
Rizzello says: ’There is a lot of energy that goes into creating
marketing strategies that do not cannibalise the existing market. The
timing of PR in this regard has to be very careful. A lot of energy also
goes into managing upgrades so that people are not scared into waiting
too long before they buy - this might cause an enormous gap in cash
When a serious, long-term development in technology is underway, there
are often several manufacturers and representatives from other relevant
industries involved, which presents communications challenges of its
This was the case with the DVD committee, which developed the new
Digital Versatile Disk standard for storing digital information (see
Rizzello says: ’It was a classic example of two industries - electronics
and content (films and music) with completely different cultures and
attitudes coming together with a marketing agenda. Here the PR agency
often plays the role of diplomat and arbitrator.’
Rizzello had a similar experience running a business-to-business
campaign for Blue Tooth, the wireless connectivity solution (pictured
below) which will start appearing on products such as mobile phones and
laptops later this year. The system is a chip implanted inside products
which enable users to connect up using radio waves, giving a much
greater range than is possible with existing technology. It will mean,
for instance, that five people with laptops at a meeting can create an
ad hoc network without wires.
Blue Tooth was launched by five manufacturers in the hi-tech and
communications sectors - IBM, Intel, Nokia, Ericsson, and Toshiba. The
business launch to get the rest of the industry on board was
simultaneous in London, Japan, and San Francisco. Edelman was aiming to
get adoption of Blue Tooth from the technology industry, and 450
companies said they would adopt it.
’The message has to be really coherent with everyone behind it if it is
to work. If there had been any wavering or watering down of the message
through compromise we would not have succeeded in getting the industry
behind the product,’ says Rizzello.
Clive Riches, northern European sales manager at Memorex Products
Europe, which makes and sells DVD players and disks, is familiar with
the question of how to keep people buying despite the evolving nature of
’If people sat on the fence all the time they would never buy any
product. It is the same for every other consumer product, from cars
down. With IT, I think that people are especially aware of the issue,
but they realise that although the product will soon become dated it
will still do the job.
’PCs, for instance, have a shelf-life of about three months because new
chips keep coming along - you can never have the latest product for very
long, but the one you have will do the job for about five years,’ he
In the fast moving hi-tech world it is often very hard for the consumer
to keep up with these all changes.
One executive says anonymously: ’Look at the dynamics of journalism in
this area. Journalists love writing about the latest technology, but
they do not always put it into context by saying that there are better
products coming along that are just around the corner. The question is
whether companies take advantage of this deliberately.’
Grace Fodor, a director at Fodor Wyllie, believes the rapid nature of
the market has had an impact on what PR in this sector means: ’I think
the PR role has changed from promoting the technological breakthrough
and innovation, to helping consumers become ’smarter’ and better
equipped in making purchasing decisions,’ she says.
’It is more about getting consumers to think about the application of
new tech-nology, how it fits into their lives and the benefits that it
will bring against the investment required.’
CO-OPERATION WAS KEY TO DVD DEVELOPMENT
DVD stands for digital versatile disk. It is a digital storage device
that can be used for any medium - audio-visual, audio, or data. A DVD
disk looks just like a CD but slightly thicker and stores much more
information as it is multi-layered. The exact amount of information DVD
disks hold is not yet standard, but those on the market currently hold
around five gigabytes.
The capacity of DVD gives the format a number of advantages. A whole
film can be stored on it and picture clarity is far superior to a VHS
cassette. DVDs are also more manageable than video cassettes as
rewinding and forwarding a film is no longer required. DVD-ROM, for
computer software, is also being developed.
DVD Audio, a new music platform, is also on the cards, although DVD is
mainly being pushed as a vehicle to replace video cassettes. Already
there are 250,000 DVD players in the UK, and with costs now below pounds
200 there is the expectation that this will grow quickly. Most people
use it to view films and last year the market in DVD disks was about
five per cent of the VHS tape market.
’The spread of the technology is growing six times faster than CD and
VHS did at the same stage in its development,’ says David King,
marketing consultant at the UK DVD Committee, which puts the DVD message
DVD has a headstart over similar new technologies in that, since its
development in the early-1990s, it has been a cross-industry effort.
Internationally, a DVD Forum handled the setting of standards so that
all manufacturer’s players and disks were interchangeable. The UK DVD
Committee handles promotion on behalf of the whole industry. Its 23
members comprise manufacturers such as Toshiba and Sony as well as
software producers including Universal and Warner Brothers.
Developing DVD by committee has slowed it down, but has also ensured
there have been no ’Betamax versus VHS’-type battles. The committee
works hand-in-hand with the members’ in-house teams to generate
awareness and to promote sampling of the new technology.
’Once you have experienced how good it is, you are converted’, says
King, ’It is like the first time you heard a CD after vinyl.’
Last year was the first full year of activity for the DVD Committee,
such as distributing of a free sample disk on magazines and through
electrical retailers. In an associated promotion, free software was
given to those with the disk that bought a player. This accounted for 20
per cent of player sales last August.