CES 2014 – Innovative Partnerships, not Products

Last week I was one of the 150,000 people swarming around Las Vegas for International CES.  While the show has never seen more exhibitors – over 3,200 – and its one-word message this year was “innovation,” it was notable this year for not launching any earth-shattering new technology.

That kind of innovation may be too much to expect in 2014.  After all, 20 years of steady innovation has placed a smartphone, a flat-screen tv, video game console, laptop and/or tablet, and high-tech headphone in the hands of every consumer who cares to have one.  While there was a lot of talk about wearable technology, it’s doesn’t yet represent a breakthrough technology, and no one this year delivered anything that consumers can’t live without.  And that includes “bendable” television screens.

That’s not the say that the show wasn’t exciting. But my excitement came more from watching technology companies finding market-driven methods of innovation – using partners to accomplish goals they can’t accomplish themselves – much like we do at IMC.  Like CES itself (approaching its 50th anniversary), our clients are mature business that may not reinvent categories they often invented themselves, especially when they already have universal brand awareness and a dominant market share.

That’s where we come in, helping brands like these find other ways to innovate beyond simply redeveloping their own products.  At CES I was most interested in companies that developed partnerships to reach new markets with their existing products.  In some cases, these partnerships allow manufacturers to reach consumers wherever they shop – which is now everywhere.  In others, they use consumer insights to meet real-life demands that don’t necessarily involve electronics.

Maximizing the Omnichannel World

FitBit and Tory Burch.  Sometimes even two red-hot brand needs external partners to reach new markets, and that’s what FitBit got with its announced licensing partnership with Tory Burch.  For all the talk about wearable technology, not much of it looks like anything you’d really like to wear.  Tory Burch and her design staff should be able to fix that, which should bring new customers to FitBit, and bring a new distribution channel (Tory Burch’s own stores and website) that FitBit could never have engaged on its own.

Peavey and Marvel.  We persuaded Peavey, one of the leading domestic manufacturers of amplifiers and guitars, to take on its first license (for Jack Daniel’s) ten years ago.  At CES, Peavey’s Tony Moscal told me how the Jack Daniel’s license led to one with Marvel.  To reach the new fan base that came with Marvel, Peavey partnered with Diamond Comics, the leading distributor to comic book stores in the country.  Thanks to partnerships like these, Peavey is now selling products where none of its competitors can follow; it even exhibits at ComicCon.

Consumer Insights and Influence

Samsung and SodaStream.  How to innovate the refrigerator?  While Samsung  keeps tweaking its designs in interesting ways, it’s most interesting innovation this year came from getting on board a beverage trend: the love for sparkling water.  This year Samsung introduced water dispensers “powered by SodaStream” , using the best possible brand to deliver a strong promise to consumers, and to begin slyly moving into space dominated by beverage companies like Nestle!

Yahoo/Katie Couric.  Not all Yahoo users are excited by its purchase of Tumblr.  Some of them just want it to be a great homepage again. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer listened to those loyalists when she signed up Katie Couric to a multi-year contract as its “global anchor” – and then trotted out Couric as the biggest star in a keynote speech that also included the “Weekend Update” crew from SNL and singer John Legend.

Unlike a lot of leaders at CES, Mayer is smart enough to understand that not all of the industry’s growth can come from new technology, or teenagers.  And the most innovative companies may continue to be those that find new ways to meet consumers wherever they want to shop, and deliver them whatever features they are looking for most.  That will get consumers talking about consumer electronics, whether they think of them as consumer electronics or not.

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