How unknown brands can get the most out of CES

Size does matter at CES, and big brands take advantage of every inch of real estate at the Las Vegas tech trade show. Here's how challenger brands can get coverage, too.

Household names such as Amazon, Honda, and Samsung are among the companies planning to descend on Las Vegas next week for CES, the world’s largest consumer technology show, set to run from January 9-12. However, it isn’t just big brands that will be jockeying for earned media coverage.

Startups are also investing in booths on the main show floor, where space can cost between $25,000 and $120,000. CES also allocates a more affordable area for them outside the main exhibit called Eureka Park Marketplace, which has attracted about 800 startups this year, up from 600 the year prior.

With more than 7,000 members of the media expected to attend, the best bets for these enterprising brands to rise above the noise are strategic partnerships and influencer outreach tactics.

LaunchSquad cofounder Jason Mandell will be at CES this year for client Quanergy Systems, a manufacturer of sensor technology called LiDAR, which is used to power self-driving vehicle systems. Having raised more than $100 million, Quanergy is a heavily backed company but still a Silicon Valley startup in the massive auto tech space.

Mandell says he advises his clients to think long and hard before making the trip to Las Vegas.

"In my 18 years with LaunchSquad, this will only be the second time a client of mine is doing anything of significance at CES...I consider that to be a success; we have counseled our earlier-stage clients to not go to CES in any meaningful way," he explains. "It is just the risk-reward ratio is very, very unappealing for that kind of company. The show can work for them, but it is a very big gamble."

Quanergy is banking on partnerships with better-known technology players, such as Cisco, to generate a positive return on investment. Quanergy and Cisco have collaborated on a connected roadway pilot that uses LiDAR sensors to track the flow of pedestrians at busy intersections around Las Vegas. The startup’s technology will be featured in Henrik Fisker‘s electric vehicle, which is set to be featured at Quanergy’s booth. And while Fisker is hardly a well-known brand, its founder is a noted former BMW designer.

"We are optimistic that the investment, time, and energy will be worth it," says Mandell. "But I am a little nervous because of the noise. The automotive area alone at CES is massive."

Plan a ground game
MSLGroup SVP Mark McClennan is planning to attend the show for Dynamics Inc., a designer and manufacturer of battery-powered interactive payment cards. The agency is also supporting Samsung and Coravin, the maker of a device that enables wine to be poured into a glass without pulling the cork, among other brands.

McClennan advises each company heading to CES to plan in advance, but notes, "I tell a lot of small companies that you should be aiming to get 10 times the number of interviews you’ve scheduled once you get there."

A good ground game can make that a reality, McClennan says. That includes identifying less hectic and rushed areas to strike up impromptu conversations with journalists, like outside media rooms, show halls, and lunch venues.

That strategy helped McClennan during a prior trip to Las Vegas, when he was at CES for a startup client.

"In line for the bus to go back to the hotel, I turned behind me, saw it was a reporter from Forbes, gave him my client pitch, and he wanted to talk more," he recalls. "Whether in line for lunch or waiting for a show hall to open, those are times when you can really engage with people."

He advises smaller companies to also enter CES’ Innovation Awards. He says the cost to participate is reasonable, and winning one "is a great way to stand out, since reporters look to that for stories."

The awards are set to cover 28 categories this year, including accessible tech, fitness sports and biotech, robotics and drones, and smart home.

Tyler Perry, partner and New York GM of Bateman Group, has supported previous shows for client L’Oréal. To save money one year, she recalls the global beauty brand didn’t buy a booth, but set up an offsite location and did advance legwork to attract journalists.

"But I was still cajoling people like a jackal to get journalists to leave the main area," she says.

The pitch for smaller brands is even tougher, regardless of whether they’re onsite. Yet Perry says that with a newsworthy announcement and visual assets, a targeted media narrative can increase the odds of media coverage.

One tactic she recommends: aligning an announcement with a trend story.

"By being very explicit about how your news aligns with a broader trend at CES, that will help increase your chances of getting included in roundup coverage," notes Perry. "If that gets you some initial coverage in a top-tier publication, you can then get on to the radars of other outlets."

"Journalists will be saying to themselves, ‘If The New York Times wrote about them, then maybe I need to cover them, too," she adds.

This story was updated on January 5 to correct a Mandell quote and to correct the location at which Fisker's car will appear. It was updated on January 9 to correct information about Perry's experience.

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