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Consumer Electronics' Identity Crisis

Posted by: Dyfed "Fred" Richards on Wednesday, December 21 2011 03:49 PM


In the space of a few decades – and within less than one generation – technology products have evolved from devices such as record players, Walkmen and VCRs to a vast array of digital delights we now refer to as “consumer electronics.” But as the high-tech category continues to expand in its offerings and influence, electronics aren’t the only things evolving. Consumers are, too, and their evolution is creating branding and communication challenges for category participants young and old.

When I was growing up, the male head of the household typically purchased, assembled and operated the family’s technology products, although everyone enjoyed their benefits. The television remote (attached to the TV by a cable) was the prized object; dictating channel selection a coveted task. I recall my father being greeted with much fanfare and delight when he carried our first VCR across the threshold. In those heady days, schools stopped classes to watch space shuttles being launched into outer space, and my father faithfully recorded the events for posterity on a VHS cassette. We felt we were on technology’s cutting edge.

My, how (quickly) things have changed! Today, every family member is in charge of his or her personal technology products, and it is often the youngsters who tutor their parents in the latest operating systems and apps. The digital revolution we have been witness and partner to has reshaped our world, but at what cost? As the human race embraces each new high-tech innovation in our never-ending quest for speed and access to information, there is clearly a trade-off taking place: Our evolving role within an evolving technology chain is moving us farther and farther from the original source of information, hampering our ability to determine its veracity. It is somewhat akin to our relationship with the food chain. The farther we drift from the source of our food – the how, when, and why the chicken breast ended up on our plate – the less we know about the food’s composition, nutritional value and safety; creating, in essence, a food identity crisis.

Technology brands, I fear, may be on the verge of a similar identity crisis. While the local food movement is course-correcting and educating retailers and consumers on the nutritional and environmental value of selling and eating locally produced foods, the consumer electronics industry continues to blindly charge ahead, creating a larger and larger vacuum between the source (code and content) and the consumer. Apparently, CE manufacturers are banking on the fact that a vast proportion of consumers are not interested in the “who, what, when, where, how or why” behind their high-tech toys. As long as manufacturers continue to produce “the latest and greatest” products (whatever that means), consumers will continue to snap them up. Or will they?

Increasing numbers of consumers are becoming more selective and informed about their technology purchases – and they are using technology itself to compare and contrast features, components, price and availability. Consumers’ evolving buying habits should be a wake-up call for the CE industry to evolve its branding and marketing practices. For example, the industry has been talking to itself using jargon and (meaningless) alpha-numeric codes that left the consumer behind decades ago. Offering simplified messaging for the majority (which spans all age groups), with easy access to more in-depth information for technophiles, is paramount. Any CE brand that can cut through the communications clutter and simplify the customer journey will be seen as revolutionary.

Someone recently told me that – at some moment in time – every person has his or her day, every company has its best year ever, and every brand has the “it” product. (Recall that Betamax and VHS had their day in the sun.) However, to achieve sustainable success in the “blink-or-you’ll miss it” world of consumer electronics, a brand’s messaging – and its packaging – need to keep pace with the evolving information needs and preferences of its target audience, which is growing larger and more diverse by the minute.

It is time for CE brands to rethink the role that packaging plays for products that primarily engage with prospective buyers online or in a store’s out-of-the-box display, such as TVs, laptops and e-readers. Here’s a personal example: I recently bought a flat-screen TV; a significant financial investment and major family event. My wife and I first conducted extensive online research to determine what brand and model would best meet our needs, based on the price we wanted to pay. Later, when we arrived at the store to see what our chosen TV actually looked like, on-shelf product cards and “Kevin,” our friendly sales associate, detailed its features and benefits. I even got to use the remote to test the sound and picture quality. We didn’t see the TV’s packaging until after we had made our purchase. However, when we got home, the importance of that packaging became clear. With no “Kevin” to help us with set-up, the on-pack illustrations, as well as the accompanying instruction card and new user DVD, walked us through the process.

Packaging’s evolving role in the consumer electronics category creates new challenges and opportunities for CE brands to engage with consumers. To succeed, these brands may well need to think “outside the box.”

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