A view from Jeremy Ettinghausen

Tech brands are talkin' loud and sayin' nothing

How can tech brands make news when there is no news to make?

It seems a long time since everything stopped for an Apple product launch. 

Before the event, there would be weeks of speculation, best-guesses and rumours. The invitation itself would be analysed in exhaustive detail: what does "There’s something in the air" mean? Why the theatre curtains? Bank balances were checked and computers backed up because, while we didn’t know exactly what was coming, we knew we’d probably want it. 

The day itself often had an air of butterflies-in-the-stomach, twitchy excitement. Time differences between London and San Francisco were calibrated and the Apple online store checked, just in case the "webmaster" made a goof and leaked product news early (they never did). Just before 5pm GMT, fanatics the world over composed themselves in front of their computers, ready to see what one more thing would change everything this year.   

Good times.

Recently, though, while the tech press are still out in force and the Twitter commentariat haven’t reined in their snark, the stomach butterflies no longer flutter and the world just keeps on spinning. And this is not (just) about last month’s iPhone 7 launch event, though the annual launch of "the best iPhone we’ve ever made" provided little in the way of surprise, let alone dazzle. Android phones are not immune from a growing homogeneity (unless you consider exploding batteries a feature rather than a fault) and, with the shuttering of Google’s Ara modular phone project, no-one should have expected anything paradigm-shifting from this year’s Google phone launch.

When it comes to hardware, we are in a phase of incremental feature improvements and design tweaks, rather than radical, category-defining product launches. For gadget geeks, this can be a frustrating period. How can we show off our early-adopter chops without cutting-edge product to buy? But for marketers, the lack of new news is even more problematic, whatever the product category. What’s the feature, the differentiation, the USP that makes this product not just market-ready but sellable?

So, while the media will always turn out for an Apple or Google or Samsung launch, what do other tech brands do to make some noise when there isn’t much signal to transmit?

Association with celebrity is always a popular gambit, from Beats owning sports-star visibility to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s involvement with secretive augmented-reality start-up Magic Leap. More "challenging" is the installation of a celeb as a creative director for a tech brand – Alicia Keys for BlackBerry (how did that one work out?), Jessica Alba for Microsoft, Lady Gaga for Polaroid and Will.i.am for everything else. Of course, fashion has long believed in celebrity endorsement, but now everyone’s getting involved: Swizz Beatz is "chief creative for culture" for Bacardi, and Wild Turkey has just released the first film from its new creative director Matthew McConaughey. A film directed by and starring one M McConaughey. Alright, alright, alright.

Creation of scarcity, whether actual or artificial, is another tactic tech brands regularly deploy. Taking their cue from the invitation systems Google used for the launch of Gmail, Chinese mobile upstart OnePlus made the difficulty of getting your hands on one of its phones an integral part of its early marketing efforts. Online-only challenger bank Monzo got big buzz from its invitation system – Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s internal email server almost crashed with the undignified spectacle of colleagues sharing sign-up links to get themselves bumped up the queue for a new debit card.

And when you’re too big for scarcity and Alicia Keys is busy, there’s always the grandstanding stunt to fall back on. Samsung spent $20m on an ad plus sponsorship package for the 2014 Oscars. Snapping the "best photo ever" and becoming part of the most popular tweet in history might have gone a long way to covering its costs. 

But maybe, instead of trying to disguise the lack of radical change, we should learn to celebrate incremental improvement. For consumers, it can be a positive thing. It’s hard to buy a bad phone, camera or TV these days. And you can upgrade the thing you have without a steep learning curve. Everything works pretty much as expected, but better. 

Tesla is, justifiably, the most hyped car company on the planet, and arguably one of the hottest tech companies too. It is defining a new category and, by combining A-list endorsement, product scarcity and clickbait-worthy stunts, is very much on top of its marketing game as well. 

Contrast the noise from Tesla with the signal from Volkswagen, whose incremental year-on-year improvements to the Golf have made it one of the most successful models in auto history. Selling these incremental improvements may not be the easiest advertising task. The world has never stopped spinning for the annual Golf refresh. But more than 30 million Golfs sold demonstrates that, often, it’s the quiet ones who have the most to say. 

Jeremy Ettinghausen is innovation director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty London and BBH Labs