What the Top CES Takeaways REALLY Mean for Your Brand
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What the Top CES Takeaways REALLY Mean for Your Brand

January 27, 2020

John Phillips

We hit the show floor and read all the “key takeaway” lists. Here’s what you really need to know about consumer tech in 2020 and beyond — and how to identify the meaningful implications for your brand.

Autonomous, virtual, augmented, 5G, A.I. — what!? The dust has settled over CES 2020, and the glut of media coverage on the shiniest new widgets has begun to wane. If you’re at all like me, you’ve satisfied your appetite snacking on all the bite-sized “Top __ Trends from CES” lists from your blogs/podcasts/newsletters of choice (mostly at red lights, let’s be honest). But now that the lights of the showroom floors in Las Vegas have faded, you’re probably beginning to wonder: “So… now what?” It’s time to take stock of what really matters: the implications. That’s what this post is about.

Double-Distilled Content

Maybe dedicated tech-media outlets — CNET, Gizmodo, TechCrunch — are your personal go-tos for CES takeaways. Maybe the business/marketing-centric publications that cover major tech news — Forbes, Adweek, WSJ — are more your speed. Either way, chances are your chosen source(s) highlighted some or all of the following hot topics at the biggest tech expo on the planet this year:

  • 5G everything: Coming to a smartphone (and traffic light… and hospital… and, you get it) near you.
  • Smarthome: Last year’s proliferation showed up on steroids this year, with no signs of slowing down.
  • Sensors galore: Boring components being applied in smarter ways is opening doors to tech that predicts, not just responds.
  • Connected city: Smarthome was just the tip of the proverbial suburb. Sights (like expectations) are now being set higher.
  • Autonomous vehicles: If you’re a car maker and didn’t show off your WIP autonomy chops, you did it wrong. Hell, at least one non-car maker is even getting in on the action.
  • AI: Blending with, making possible, managing, and maximizing all of the above.
  • Plant-based meat: Molecular biophysicists have all the fun — at least they did this year.

While these individual stories — and the impressive tech at the center of them — are all interesting, it’s in stepping back to identify the common threads and the meaning/implications behind them that the most intriguing narratives emerge. From that wider perspective, we can follow those threads towards the future and see what pulling on each might mean for brands. To be sure, there’s a multitude of them. For this post, we picked three that offer a bigger-picture view of what you really need to know about consumer tech in 2020 — ones that we believe will have meaningful implications across sectors and strategies

  1. Automated, predictive experiences will meet consumers’ needs — proactively

Combine evolving sensing technologies (“the what”) with AI (“the how”), and what do you get? The ability to create automated, predictive, and highly adaptive experiences that meet consumers’ functional and emotional needs/desires proactively, across a wide range of applications and environments (“the why”).

The implications:

Given the combined power of the technologies that enable them, the user experiences (of any imaginable type) that are so seamless and intuitive users forget there’s anything “there” are closer than ever before. Consider the utility and benefits of a learning thermostat like Nest (to both end-users and Google on the backend) that leverages only a handful of metrics to create a better, smarter, easier experience… And imagine how genuinely transformative it will be when similar (and more advanced) sensors and AI learn, predict, and fluidly/”invisibly” control and manage myriad facets of “life” in our homes, vehicles, and other environments. To illustrate one example, a wellness or health ecosystem could optimize care with discrete, non-invasive biometric sensors for data-based predictive prevention and proactive, personalized care. Or another example: a vehicle could create a distinctive and unique passenger experience using multi-sensory cues based on both personal (and/or even social) data for a given transportation use case.

Questions to consider:

  • How can your brand’s existing customer experience touchpoints evolve with this tech… and how can you ensure they reflect human/user-centered realities?
  • What entirely novel experiences can be created with this near-future technological scaffolding?
  1. The real promise of sustainability will begin to be fulfilled

At first blush, sustainability can easily be dismissed as old hat. But the reality? A convergence of multiple technologies over the last 12 to 18 months suggests that a critical mass of the puzzle pieces needed to make it a truly mainstream consideration may soon be falling into place.

The implications:

How consumers think about sustainability appears to be approaching an inflection point. It’s telling that consumers now conceptualize sustainability in myriad ways — from vegan “meat” as a suddenly-viable option, to cutting edge material science, to multi-touchpoint recycling programs. Sustainability is no longer a challenge with an easy product solve; there’s a rapidly growing understanding that this thorny issue requires a systems-based solution. Pair that with the one-two punch of consumers being savvier than ever and highly dubious of half-hearted effort. Brands that don’t take heed of this quick evolution do so at their own peril.

Gone are the days when brands could earn credit for incremental change. “Greenwashing” has been a four-letter word for select segments for the better part of a decade, but the rest are catching on and catching up with that sentiment. There’s a growing expectation that liked and trusted brands demonstrate leadership — and put their money where their mouths are. Doing so can be a key part of a brand becoming authentic and electric. PR messaging about what your brand is supposedly doing (or worse, will do) is flat; today’s consumers also want to know there’s a believable “how” behind what you’re saying.

Questions to consider:

  • What is your brand’s learning agenda across the next couple quarters for understanding how the turn towards true sustainability will play out with your key customer segments?
  • What other questions pertinent to your role does this topic raise?
  1. Seamless smart connectivity will unite public and private ecosystems

Across the last half decade, the advent of mainstream IoT and the first connected smart (non-phone/tablet) devices created opportunity for all manner of new products and user experiences. Anything someone might want to put in their home, you name it, there’s now an option you can control via voice (referred to in some circles as “zero UI”) or remotely by app — from lighting and climate control to security and entertainment. Previously confined to private environments, the barriers between personal and social or even public applications of these technologies are coming down.

The implications:

As we quickly approach a time when cities — not merely homes — operating with inherently interwoven smart tech is a reality, individuals’ personal ecosystems can (and inevitably will) blend with those that are external, both socially with others and with those belonging to the most forward-thinking brands. It’s difficult to overstate the “so what” here. Entirely new means of both marketing and fulfilling product and service experiences are on the table.

As enjoyable an experience as using your intelligent toilet is, it’s still mainly a novelty at this point. But as smart connectivity technologies move from infancy to adolescence and how interwoven they are grows, so too will the importance of being strategically informed and ahead of the competitive curve increase for brands. Consumers may be incentivized to link that smart toilet to retail, maintenance, healthcare, lifestyle or any other service/experience a brand can dream up to deliver. Environments outside the home will be able to recognize and adapt to individuals’ presence, to create bespoke experiences, redefining (or carving out fresh space in) the value chain. How about an automatically AI-curated selection of products when you walk into B&M retail? A menu customized around you and your partner’s tastes in honor of your anniversary? Alexa prompting, “John, your parking meter is about to run out. Would you like me to add another hour?”  Yes, please!

Questions to consider:

  • How is your brand gaining foresight and/or planning initiatives that tap into this?
  • What should your functional team be thinking about to help ensure leadership doesn’t miss the boat?

Parting Thoughts

As you reflect on what any of this might mean for your specific brand or your personal role there, take a few extra minutes to consider these last pieces of unsolicited advice:

  • As you make bets about the future — especially which “evolutionary strands” of consumer tech will unravel and which will thrive — focus on consumers’ all-important needs and wants, including the motivations and desired experiences attached to them. Without a robust understanding here, you’re betting blind.
  • Keep your eyes on the medium- to long-term. That doesn’t mean that you should put off thinking about and addressing the implications above. Quite the opposite: it’s a call to action to get the ball rolling because tomorrow’s action doesn’t happen without today’s planning.
  • Before you formulate your H1/H2 learning agenda or start firing off RFPs, ensure your team has identified a few kernels of truth for your brand. Knowing what is is a powerful anchor for framing — and later, helping to contextualize — what can be. Having internal alignment and fluency around a few realities / known quantities (current ones, at least) makes discovering fresh insights and filling in gaps more thoughtful and ultimately more rewarding.

John Phillips

Senior Director, Design Research

With a background in product and service design, John provides a different perspective on design research and strategy with an emphasis on tactical implementation. As Senior Director of Design...

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