Tech giants struggle to keep product launches as must-see events

Are the large-scale, splashy events that consumer technology companies rely on to unveil products still effective?

Are the large-scale, splashy events that consumer technology companies rely on to unveil products still effective? PR experts are split after watching device launches from Apple and Nokia this week.

At a streamed event from Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Nokia unveiled its first tablet and large-screen smartphones, which will become part of Microsoft's product lineup once its deal to take over the Finnish company's handset business closes in the first quarter of next year.

Apple staged its own event on the same day to launch the iPad Air, a lighter and thinner update of its popular high-end tablet, as well as a new version of its smaller iPad Mini with high-resolution retina display. However, the highly anticipated event received a mixed media response, with some tech journalists and third-party experts calling the rollout a “yawn” and “pointless.”

Siobhan Aalders, EVP of Ogilvy Public Relations' technology practice in New York, says that product events “have proven hugely valuable for tech companies because they get a wide range of media in one room at the same time where they can touch, feel, and try the product.”

However, she said an event such as the one Apple put on this week can fall flat when it fails to give reporters something new for them to play with and tell their audiences about.

“When Apple launched the iPhone or iPad, and even the iPad Mini to a certain extent, there was something new for people to hold onto and show people in terms of how it actually works,” Aalders explains. “But this event actually devalued [Apple] because what they really announced was a lighter iPad and different pricing. I just don't think the event has the same power.”

Yet Aalders notes that while there is “a lot more cynicism, certainly on Twitter, about what Apple is doing, there is still a huge audience that loves everything the company does.”

Todd Cadley, MD at Horn, contends that technology companies need to rethink the value of big product events because the rapid pace of innovation, additional competition, and heightened expectations mean they may not deliver the same return they once did.

“It is tough because with these launches you are spending a significant amount of budget, time, and effort. My question back to big brands would be: ‘Does this really create the kind of return on investment that you're looking for?'” he asks. “I think these brands need to take a step back and be a lot more surgical and sniper-focused, whether that means targeting fanboys on social sites or gadget geeks.”

If a company does decide to hold a large launch event, Cadley says it must truly show off innovation to be successful.

“It has to have some type of massive innovation and thought leadership tied to it, a lot like Apple was able to do in the past,” he explains. “You want to be perceived as an information resource and trendsetter. If you are not, it will be tough to move the needle and achieve the desired results of the executive management team.”

He adds that there's no reason for a large-scale product launch, “unless you have an entirely brand new product and are doing something dramatically different than what is on the market today.”

However, SeriesC founder and president Andy Cunningham, who once led Apple's PR, believes events will continue to be a critical part of any major consumer tech-maker's communications strategy.

“I think the events are exciting, especially since this industry is really driven by personalities, and they put energy back into the industry,” she says, adding that any event should include pre-event advertising and PR to build advance buzz.

Cunningham hypothesizes that some negative coverage of Apple's unveiling has more to do with what she calls the “Steve Jobs hangover effect,” rather than any significant commentary about the value of these events.

“No one was better at pitching a product than Steve Jobs. He created anticipation, mystique, and magic – and so it is hard to replace that. People are still hanging on to the memory of what that was like,” she adds. “I think in another year, people will be more receptive.”

She adds that Apple is likely going through growing pains in terms of how it goes to market with product information.

“Apple is wondering what is the way forward in terms of how much do they stick to the old, and how much they invent something new,” says Cunningham. “I think they are struggling with what they should do.”

Ron Eagle, SVP in the entertainment and technology practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, also believes launch events will remain a key part of product campaigns.

“An event is never just singularly about an event – it is just the announcement that layers into a broader strategy, everything from driving pre-orders to providing a third-party business experience, as well,” he says.

Eagle adds that one reason tech companies have used launch events successfully is because they have prevented media leaks that are more common in other sectors.

“It helps preserve the sanctity of the event and helps build the cycle of interest; just think about the number of media articles written and content created on what people are expecting Apple to announce,” he explains. “That spurs a lot of consumer interest that they have not actively sought, and adds a layer of mystique to an event.”

“Companies that want to emulate that have to ensure they are not leaking anything out,” Eagle adds.

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