The looks and the lifestyle

Consumer tech PR is focusing more on the experience of the products, and less on their bells and whistles.

Consumer tech PR is focusing more on the experience of the products, and less on their bells and whistles.

With visions of mp3s and DVDs dancing in consumers' heads this holiday season, consumer-electronics companies are using PR to get their brands and products into those customers' heads as well. With Consumer Reports predicting that 78% of all US households will buy a hi-tech gadget or consumer-electronic product this holiday season, PR is playing a greater role in helping consumers make up their minds. "PR is very much an important component of promoting anything that has technology in it, especially those products oriented toward the consumer," says Brodeur Worldwide EVP Mike Brewer, who runs the firm's personal technology practice. "You have to look at the motivation of the consumer. When talking to the general consumer, you are talking about benefits and lifestyle and brand. You are trying to attach an emotional benefit. That is the essence of branding. How is it going to improve my life? How is it going to make me feel better about my life?" Technology as a lifestyle story Digital lifestyle is the buzzword du jour - one that Apple, for instance, has been repeating like a mantra to its success, and others are dying to emulate. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the flat-screen iMac in early 2002, he called it "the digital hub for your digital lifestyle." GCI Group's LA office started a digital-lifestyle practice a couple of years ago, which helps demonstrate how consumer-electronics PR has changed over the years. It's no longer about speeds and feeds. It's about the benefits. DVD players were last year's hot holiday item, and promise to be hot again this year, along with digital cameras. But it's not just lower prices that have driven consumers to buy DVD players, digital cameras, and mp3 players. PR is focused on the experience these hi-tech products bring, not the technology itself. "Technology has changed so rapidly and quickly for us, that we take for granted that not too long ago we weren't using cell phones and e-mail," explains Jake Drake, EVP and GM of GCI's Los Angeles office. "As [technology] becomes more pervasive, we are getting away from talking to Red Herring and Business 2.0 to get CEOs on the cover. Now it's about teaching the consumer how to get the most out of technology. We have to bring it to life, and show consumers what they can do with it." So new technologies, such as DVD burning, are being presented as a lifestyle story to consumer media, not just a technology story for hi-tech publications. Newsweek recently featured a story on scrapbook parties - not a new phenomenon. But the angle was on digital scrapbook parties, and featured people digitizing photos and other mementos, and burning them onto DVDs. GCI helped make its client Philips Electronics part of the story, not by pitching Philips' products, but how Philips could be a valuable and knowledgeable resource on DVD burning. "It's easy to sit down with an editor and show them how to put together a DVD," says Drake. "But that's still a technology story. The key is bringing the story to life. What's more important than your memories? If your house is on fire, what do you grab? Scrapbooks and photo albums. Those are the irreplaceable things. We focused on how DVD burners can help people do more than they've ever done before to preserve those memories. Once the audience understands the value, then they'll seek out the technology that makes it possible. And hopefully when they see Philips products in the store, they will have a brand connection back to the story." Educating consumers PR campaigns have now become education campaigns. Tom Shay, director of corporate communications for Fuji Photo Film USA, says mainstream consumers don't care about how digital cameras work, "they just want it to be easy to use and take good pictures." Once consumers have bought into the digital lifestyle story of how digital cameras can make sharing memories so much easier, Fuji focuses on product publicity via the media. Once a consumer decides to buy a digital camera, then companies rely heavily on the media to help point out what differentiates one company's product from another. "Media influencers are very important," says Euro RSCG Middleberg SVP Rosemary Ostmann, who works with Consumer Reports. "At the end of the day, it has to be a good product. So you have to give the media ample time to review your product before it's available. Because consumers can find so much information about these products online, they can go in feeling more confident about the purchase they are going to make. They want to know what value the product will bring to their lives." With such an emphasis on value, consumers are paying attention to what distinguishes certain products. For example, Handspring focuses on its Treo Communicator having a built-in keyboard instead of a "graffiti" pad like most PDAs. "We want our products top of mind, and we use differentiators to do that," says Brian Jaquet, corporate communications manager at Handspring. "We reach out to the press, but we also use point-of-purchase promotions, local TV markets, and gift guides. The struggle is the value proposition, and communicating that value to a population that doesn't know what it means. People who use our products see how they bring value to their lives. But until you get the product into their hands, it's difficult." And in the end, there is always the brand. DVD players are being adopted as prices fall below $150, and with many players offering the same bells and whistles, consumers often rely on brand name to decide. That's why Sharp's latest PR effort has focused on its brand. "Product is the king," says Dave Fogelson, Sharp Electronics' director of corporate communications. "When we launched an LCD television called AQUOS, it was a radical departure for the company. We were viewed as one of many [consumer-electronics companies]. With the dawn of a new product, it was really something that got the media's attention and got them to think of Sharp in a very different way. Our PR has been focused on the AQUOS story." The focus has been to pitch the lifestyle benefits of LCD televisions, along with establishing Sharp's brand as synonymous with such technology. "We don't have a challenge in getting the media's attention," says Fogelson. "The challenge is with the consumer, and getting them to say, 'I want a flat-screen TV. I need this in my life.' That's why we focus on the benefits of this technology, and also make sure that Sharp is clearly part of the story when people talk about LCD televisions." Companies are selling a lifestyle, and eagerly want to be synonymous with that lifestyle and what those products bring - be it the freedom to do more on the go with a Treo Communicator, or sharing and preserving memories with a Fuji digital camera or Philips DVD burner. "It's all about how the product will help me," says Ostmann. "How will these products allow me to spend more time with people, or connect with family? It's about the gratification these products can bring." And as companies strive to tie their brands to the lifestyle their products offer, they will hope not only for a greater share of mind, but also share of heart among hi-tech consumers. -------------------- Putting on the style Style is emerging as the latest means of hyping hi-tech, particularly for mobile phones. While many companies are touting convergence, and whether their phones have merged with a digital camera or mp3 player, many consumers base their decisions on the phone's appearance, not its contents. "Many people see phones as a fashion accessory," says Denise Crew, senior manager of corporate communications at Nokia USA. "We're focusing on our new phone, which has a real sleek design and a color screen. It has beauty and brains." Nokia often uses popular and stylish celebrities to showcase its fashion-forward phones, putting them in the hands of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey at the Emmy Awards. "This is a very competitive marketplace," says Jacob Rice, senior PR manager for Siemens' mobile phone division. "And since we might not have as strong a brand as some of the other players, one of the areas we try to position ourselves is in style. We want people to see our phones are sleek, stylish, and lightweight. Obviously, we compete well in other aspects of mobile phones, but style is very important." Style is starting to creep into other products as well. Stanton Crenshaw Communications recently placed Sharp's sleek and sexy LCD TV into an eight-page fashion spread in Cosmopolitan. "Style and design are becoming much more important to people" when they consider their hi-tech purchases, says Stanton Crenshaw president Dorothy Crenshaw. "That's why we're reaching out to consumer and women's magazines. As the prices of DVD players and other consumer electronics come down, people start to think, 'How is this going to look in my living room?' That's why more [consumer electronics] PR is about how the products make people feel. It's about the lifestyle these products provide."

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