Brands change approach to get most out of CES

Communicators at major technology brands are flipping the script on years of previous Consumer Electronics Show strategies by creating their own content.

Communicators at major technology brands are flipping the script on years of previous Consumer Electronics Show strategies by creating their own content at the event instead of focusing on pitching stories to the media.

Torod Neptune, VP of corporate communications at Verizon Wireless, says his company no longer uses the world's largest tech show primarily as a product-promotion platform for press and bloggers.

At this year's show, which wraps up Friday, Verizon instead had its own communications staff act as reporters, aggregators, and content creators for its online news hub, as well as its social media channels such as YouTube and Twitter.

Verizon's team was rounded out by staffers from Weber Shandwick, its PR AOR.“It is quite a different engagement model for us at CES to bring the end user behind the curtain, and the model reflects the work we're trying to do in terms of getting aggressive about brand journalism,” Neptune tells PRWeek .

“We want to create, look for, and mine the same kind of unique, relevant content at CES similar to what you would expect from CNET, The Verge, or Huffington Post. To be quite frank, the way those guys are pursuing and engaging here is almost identical to the way we are as a brand publisher,” he adds.

Verizon's on-the-floor team covered not only its own presence at CES, including the keynote by its own CEO Lowell McAdam in which he had scripted conversations with National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell and Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas, but also its partners.

“We have multiple resources, mechanisms, and channels to tell our story and no longer need to rely on the traditional approach of journalism to tell our story from here,” adds Neptune. “If you walk around CES, you see a much more platform-driven and content-creation approach to communication, news generation, and storytelling [than past shows].”

Todd Cadley, SVP at Horn, adds that a brand creating its own content makes for a “surround sound approach.”

“That's how things are happening more and more, where instead of trying to set up 25 to 40 briefings, you're looking for more quality than quantity, and then you're able to drive your own content, whether it is your social channel, your site, or Twitter,” he says. “There's so much noise this week and you have such a massive amount of people talking, so it's hard to get through the clutter.”

Mobile handset-maker Samsung also made waves from CES by sponsoring tweets in the account of the Associated Press, marking the first time that the venerable news service has rented space in its Twitter feed. Samsung PR agency Edelman helped broker the deal, CEO Richard Edelman noted in a blog post, where he argued that PR firms have to begin working in content creation for brands.

“Those of us in PR have to change the game. Let's recognize that the digital platform for mainstream and hybrid media is an unmatched opportunity to offer hundreds of visual images, a different mentality about contributing comments, a high propensity to share quality material, and a short-form mode for absorption of information,” he said in the blog post. “Why not take on the chance to make content the basis of advertising?”

Consumers trust consumers more than the pros

Most consumers (65%) who buy a product they hadn't originally considered are inspired by consumer reviews, according to a study from Weber Shandwick. It also found that the average buyer consults 11 consumer reviews before buying.

The study also found that:
• 72% of buyers conduct at least two activities to gather opinions
• 80% of consumers are concerned about review authenticity
• 51% of buyers fear that reviews are planted by companies
• When 31% of reviews are negative, a buyer doubts a product's quality.

Source: Weber Shandwick's “Buy it, try it, rate it” study, conducted by KRC Research. Sample: 2,004 US adults who recently made one or more consumer electronics purchases.

The shift in approach comes as CES is under fire by bloggers and technology reporters who argue that the show is irrelevant in an era when product news can be easily distributed and showcased online. For instance, Slate reposted a 2011 column from tech columnist Farhad Manjoo in which he called CES “the most worthless week in tech.” Earlier this week, Wired senior writer Mat Honan wrote that “CES matters less and less. The Internet is already the world's largest trade show.”

Detractors have also pointed to the absence of big-name exhibitors such as Apple, which has avoided the show for two decades, and Microsoft. The Redmond, WA-based company quit CES after last year's show largely because its schedule didn't coincide with product launches.

However, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made a surprise appearance during the opening keynote of Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs. So rather than abandon the show, Microsoft has a presence there supporting its various partners, says Pete Pedersen, EVP and global chair of the technology practice at Edelman, one of Microsoft's PR agencies.

“Microsoft wanted to make sure it was still part of the conversation at CES,” says Pedersen. “CES remains vibrant, highly relevant, and is not going away anytime soon. Any company that looks past CES is probably making a big mistake.”

Kelly Baker, VP of Formula's consumer technology practice, argues that the show is still worth it for tech brands.

“I think that it is always worth it for clients. It depends on what your clients have to announce, and if they are debuting something brand new, then it's especially important,” she explains. “It's the one time of the year when the whole industry gets together, and I think having a presence there does say something about the brand being established with the consumer electronics category. There's something about being there that just makes a difference.”

Tara Back, president of Jack Morton in New York, which is handling work for Samsung at CES, says that there have been wacky tactics for brands to get noticed, such as brand ambassadors wearing full-body unitards to sumo wrestling battles between people in inflatable suits. However, she is also seeing more clients relying on off-the-floor communications strategies.

“[They] are avoiding the clutter of the floor completely, opting for off-site mini-conferences and private meetings instead. By inviting VIPs away from the floor, it gives attendees a break and shifts full attention to the brand,” says Back.

She is also seeing professional services companies without a physical presence at the show take clients on a curated CES tour through the lens of the brand.

“The employees and clients experience the show together and bond, while experts from the company explain what's what,” she says. “A lot of people who come now simply see the show floor as a backdrop for much more important business and media networking that is happening in the nooks and crannies of Vegas.”

Reporter Lindsay Stein also contributed to this analysis.

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