A show of confidence

At the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show, Andrew Gordon hears the technology industry's PR plans for the coming year.

At the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show, Andrew Gordon hears the technology industry's PR plans for the coming year.

After just a couple of hours wandering around the four-day Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, it's easy to see that the industry is going to be "flat" this year. "If you're going to buy a four-inch-thick television, you should probably have two-inch-thick speakers," advises Amy Friend, PR director for Pioneer Electronics.

Indeed, after years of having to put up with clunky and chunky televisions and other home entertainment equipment, flat is in for the consumer electronics industry. Pioneer, Toshiba, Panasonic, and Sharp were among the industry giants showing off just how slim and sexy their products are. Even companies that have nothing to do with audio and video were using flat-panel TVs to showcase their gadgets.

The mood at CES was anything but flat, as companies worked a busy crowd and hoped the high number of attendees will mean an uptick in the market.

"I really think we're seeing a renaissance in consumer technology," opined Brodeur Worldwide EVP Mike Brewer, who oversees the agency's personal technology practice. He pointed to the embrace of digital technology, portable devices, and home networking.

However, Brewer cautions that the message is more important than ever. "The industry is talking to itself way too much. The mass consumer market is opening up to all of this, but there is mass confusion about what is out there. Twenty-five percent of consumers think they have HDTV, when actually only 2% have it. We have to come together on standards, and educating the public in the same language. If consumers continue to be confused, they will turn away, not turn on."

An electronic education

As consumers continue to embrace all things digital - music, photography, television, video recording - companies are keen to explain that they're the ones giving customers what they want. "Our message is going to focus on ease of use and picture quality," says Friend. "We take a lot of pride in the picture quality."

Toshiba will take a similar approach. Maria Repole, senior manager of PR and corporate events, says Toshiba will continue to concentrate on offering customers the best possible picture quality. But both Repole and Friend agree that education is going to be key this year, as there is still mass confusion between plasma and LCD screens, DVDR (DVD recording) and DVR (digital video recording), and whether consumers even know if they have HDTV.

And with PC companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Gateway getting into the flat-screen market - along with burgeoning Asian companies making their foray into America - brand will become more important than ever.

"We're focusing on a consistent brand message around the theme 'Image Is Everything,'" says Repole. "Brand really comes into play now that everyone is manufacturing these products. Brand equity is extremely important. Customers want a brand they know, trust, and are comfortable with."

Those computer companies are not known for offering picture quality or ease of use, adds Friend, who admits that while there is more competition these days, this simply raises awareness of entire product categories. And when consumers go shopping for home audio and video products, they are going to turn to companies that they've always trusted.

To get the word out, both Pioneer and Toshiba are focusing heavily on consumer media, particularly lifestyle magazines, from publications that reach RV and mobile home enthusiasts to various women's magazines.

Meeting consumers where they live will be key in 2004. For example, palmOne is planning for some very targeted PR this year that reflects this tactic.

"Our products are targeted for very different lifestyles," explains palmOne PR director Jim Christensen. "We're going to see more market segmentation this year. You're not going to see use at a show like this to promote the [low-end] Zire. For that, you'll see us in middle America."

In 2004, palmOne plans to open a few Palm Cafes, stores where people can touch and experience palmOne's range of PDAs.

Whether it's a 50-inch flat-screen TV or a PDA with a built-in camera and MP3 player, seeing is believing. While getting the products into the hands of influencers such as the media and analysts is vital, so is getting the products into the hands of consumers so they can try them out for themselves. It's the difference between telling consumers how great the products are and actually showing them.

This is also the case for other hot digital areas, such as music and photography. For RioAudio, the company isn't even concerned about the heavy media coverage for Apple and its iPod.

"We're going after a totally different demographic," says Kevin Brangan, Rio's VP of product marketing. Highly personalized PR will focus on distinct lifestyles, he explains, adding: "Music is very personal. So we have many different players to meet people's lifestyles, and our PR reflects that."

RioAudio targets its rugged and lightweight "sport" MP3 players to publications such as Runner's World, while its sleek "street" MP3 players gain visibility with teens and young adults thanks to outreach via partnerships with the X-Games, SoBe beverages, and Doritos.

"We can't fight the Samsungs and the RCAs," said Brangan, referring to RioAudio's smaller marketing budget. So instead of offering just a couple of players to the masses, Rio creates players and PR campaigns that are highly personalized.

Building on values

Digital photography will embrace similar efforts this year. Last year, digital cameras outsold film cameras for the first time ever, says Tom Shay, corporate communications director at Fuji Photo Film USA. "And more than half of digital cameras are bought and used by women," he adds. "We've seen a huge shift in the demographics. A couple of years ago we were focusing on technology media and technology enthusiasts. Now we're focused on Good Housekeeping."

Fuji's PR in 2004 will be a continuation from 2003, with more of a focus on the benefits and value to the end user, with particular attention to lifestyles. And just as Pioneer and Toshiba will focus on their heritage and brand equity as companies with rich histories in the home entertainment market, Fuji will do the same in its market.

Perhaps more important than heritage and history, 2004 will also be about value and benefit to the user, says Eric Schneider, marketing manager for Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a trade association.

"At first our focus was to get companies to develop products that used Bluetooth [which allows devices to interact without wires]," says Schneider. "Now we are going to focus on the ease of use and the benefits of this technology. We're not here to talk about the trade association, or even the technology for technology's sake. It's about what the technology allows you to do, and the value it brings to your life."

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Besides the booths

Aside from the parties and tchotchkes, there are many other compelling reasons to attend a show such as the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). For one, it's a great way to meet face to face with many journalists and analysts in one place in a short period of time.

But not everyone throws down the big bucks to erect a monstrous booth. For example, Lexmark decided not to have a presence on the show floor this year, instead sponsoring the pressroom. Randy Nelson, VP of marketing for Lexmark's printer solutions and services division, said that at any trade show, he wants to reach decision-makers and key influencers. As the CES does not attract the kinds of executives who make decisions that can bolster Lexmark's bottom line, such as CIOs and CTOs, Nelson says there's no point in being on the show floor. But CES is crawling with journalists, so by sponsoring the pressroom, Lexmark's PR team is constantly front and center.

For Verizon, the first time's a charm at CES. The company also opted not to set up a booth, instead holding an address by CEO Ivan Seidenberg and a party at the Hard Rock Hotel on the event's first day.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there were some who wondered why we were there at all, since we don't sell computer hardware or software and are not in the consumer products business in the sense of this show," said Eric Rabe, Verizon's VP of media relations. "But Verizon's networks are at the center of the tens of thousands of products that are the main businesses of the companies that are the backbone of this huge show. CES gave us a perfect opportunity to go to this important audience with a key message: Verizon is at the core of what you are doing, because we are the ones who can make the devices you create work with each other.

"We set up the day by generating solid press coverage for two important announcements, one on the day before and the other on the morning of [Seidenberg's] speech," continues Rabe. "As a result, we increased attendance for the speech and demonstrations by more than 50% above the show's expectations. We drew more than twice the expected number of guests to our reception at [the Hard Rock Hotel] that evening. The media coverage was widespread and uniformly enthusiastic. It may be that we'll exhibit in the future, but for this year, we thought doing the talk, demonstrations, and the event for customers, suppliers, analysts, and the media on Thursday evening gave us the chance we needed to get the message we wanted to deliver in front of the key audiences."

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