Self-tying sneakers, hoverboards, drone deliveries, colonising Mars – the realms of science fiction, once framed as in the far-off future and distant galaxies, are closer than ever to becoming reality and moving forward at breakneck speed, thanks to the pace of innovation. What’s next for marketers to grapple with?
A variety of new channels and mediums are creating rich fodder for immersion and communication, as well as challenges. New consumer categories are on the rise – see baby tech, a big part of CES 2017. Meanwhile, consumer tech is evolving as a category, and maturing as a credible competitor to luxury and design.
The future is verbal
Amazon Echo, Apple’s Siri and the newly launched Google Home – voice-activated home-hub speakers – are transforming the way consumers interact with technology. Where we used to rely on a computer screen or touchscreen, now technology responds to voice, unlocking countless shopping and marketing situations, free from the constraints of a tablet or computer. While cooking, driving or carrying out other tasks, we can now shop simultaneously with a quick, direct, spoken request.
Consumers are searching verbally for information, entertainment, music and shopping opportunities with these home devices, and connecting direct to commerce and booking sites without having to visit any other intermediaries. Amazon is also answering shopping needs with its expanding list of private-label goods. Will Google be next?
Branded content is also blurring more into the realms of audio. Inventive brands see podcasting as the next frontier of content marketing. Following the phenomenal success of the Serial podcast – the first episode was released in October 2014, and it had clocked up more than 80 million episode downloads by February 2016 – branded podcasts are appearing. State Farm Insurance and eBay are among the brands to have launched podcasts recently.
Driverless cars: the new entertaining and marketing hub
On the horizon, if not imminent, is the driverless car – Uber is already testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Barely a day passes without a headline about the numerous companies trialling autonomous vehicles; forecasts of when they will be on the market range from five to 20 years. Car-makers regularly unveil their latest advances.
Manufacturers are already envisaging the self-driving car as a new entertainment space.
The interesting thing for both marketers and retailers is what this space will look like when consumers are no longer oriented toward a steering wheel and focused instead on the road ahead. Manufacturers are already envisaging the self-driving car as a new entertainment space, allowing for contextual, location-based marketing ("We’re passing Starbucks, would you like to stop for your usual Americano?") and entertainment, as a work hub, or even as an interactive shopping device.
At CES 2016, Mercedes presented its F015 Luxury in Motion concept car, a self-driving vehicle that allows users to convert the front, rear and sides of the car into a full-scale 360° digital entertainment screen, powered by gesture and eye control. Bosch introduced a haptic touchscreen to its car interiors, replicating the feeling of touching buttons.
It didn’t take long for brands to respond to the phenomenal success of the Pokémon Go augmented reality (AR) game last summer – and the potential not only for driving consumers to physical spaces en masse, but for blurring the online and offline, not to mention gamifying them. Ahead of its annual Singles’ Day shopping extravaganza, online marketplace Alibaba created a location-based AR game for customers, which encouraged them to chase a character around shopping malls. Alibaba hopes it will "become the most popular mobile game ever released".
Alibaba is not alone. Apple is rumoured to be planning a major AR push. The company’s iPhone 7 Plus has two cameras, which would allow the device to intelligently sense depth and vastly improve its capacity for AR applications. Without announcing specific plans, chief executive Tim Cook was highly optimistic about the potential of AR in a July earnings call: "We are high on AR for the long run; we think there’s great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity. So we’re investing."
Brands are trying to use AR to enhance online commerce. For 2016’s September London Fashion Week, online retail platform Lyst created "Humannequins", a window installation featuring models who could be "clothed" with the help of an AR app.
The benefit of AR over virtual reality (VR) is that layering digital imagery over real situations allows the activity to be social, contextual and outside.
Social VR – social immersive landscapes
In a similar vein, at the 2014 Web Summit, Oculus chief executive Brendan Iribe pointed to revolutionised communication as the biggest opportunity in VR. Facebook aims to enable "teleporting" by 2025.
VR has thus far been a relatively isolated experience, enjoyed through a personal headset, but tech insiders believe this needs to change if it is to achieve mass adoption.
With tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Alibaba investing heavily in VR, this is a space to watch.
Gaming companies such as The Void have sought to socialise VR with interactive multiplayer games. AR has also demonstrated the benefits of combining digital landscapes with physical and social surroundings. But this is just the beginning. Companies such as High Fidelity, founded by Philip Rosedale, who also founded virtual world Second Life, are experimenting with VR to create limitless, 3D social landscapes. And with tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Alibaba investing heavily in VR, this is a space to watch.
Marketers are already trying to harness VR, in its current form, as a new medium to market to consumers. In October, publisher Gannett ran ads on a new VR news show called VRtually There. Users were transported to a cube-shaped room, where a 15-second Toyota Camry video spot – or "cubemercial" – played from each wall. Companies already experimenting with branded content for VR include North Face and BMW.
Step into Apple’s flagship store in San Francisco’s Union Square, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a sleek furniture shop or designer boutique. The space includes double-height glass doors that open to allow the indoors and outdoors to blur. Chic planters with padded leather seating contain manicured trees, and there is a mezzanine featuring soft seating cubes, where talks are held. Products are displayed on long, elegant tables.
Technology brands are conveying luxury better than traditional purveyors of handbags and shoes.
Technology brands are increasingly conveying luxury better than traditional purveyors of handbags and shoes. The Sonos flagship store in New York wouldn’t look out of place in Wallpaper* magazine or Vogue – a series of small pods dressed as luxuriously furnished home sets offers consumers different ways to experience its speaker equipment. Much as luxury brands have sought to align themselves with the arts, Sonos staged avant-garde "experiences" with artists during London Design Week.
This is an interesting shift. We’ve already seen athleisure brands reposition themselves and behave as luxury entities. Now tech is following suit. This sits alongside a change in consumer behaviour. Our Generation Z studies find that teens are less and less concerned with brand when it comes to fashion, or at least see fashion brands as less aspirational. However, when it comes to tech, brand is important. Now it seems as though their parents are adopting a similar attitude.
Femme and baby tech – new data, collaboration and diversification opportunities
It makes sense that the predominantly male technology industry was late to grasp the opportunity in women-centric consumer technology, but this is finally changing. New, women-oriented apps and devices abound, helping women achieve better orgasm and monitor menstruation, fertility and wellbeing. Next is a wave of baby and childcare-focused devices. In 2016, connected pelvic-floor exerciser Elvie ("Your most personal trainer") hit the headlines in women’s magazines. Meanwhile, on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, a connected vibrator called Lioness reached 100% of its fundraising goal in just four days. The device’s sensors record vaginal contractions, temperature and positioning to help users understand, for example, optimal foreplay time and the connection between sex drive and menstrual cycle.
Another slew of gadgets is taking women’s health beyond just cycle-tracking. Livia is a discreet device that sends small electrical pulses to block the period pain signal. Pitched as "the off switch for menstrual pain", it was funded on Indiegogo last summer and is expected to start shipping soon. Seattle-based start-up Joylux recently launched an at-home "vaginal rejuvenation device" called vSculpt in Canada, and is preparing for its US launch. It uses vibration and infrared technology to restore tissue and tone muscles, and is aimed at the millions of women with pelvic floor issues.
Women are also coming to the fore in other tech spheres. Women-centric gaming platforms are on the rise, in recognition of the fact that about 50% of gamers are female. Wearables dedicated to women’s personal safety, such as the Safelet smart bracelet, are also emerging.
This year’s CES included the BabyTech Summit for the second time, presented by Living in Digital Times. It featured products that help quantify a baby’s life, the better to assist parents.
"The growth in the ‘internet of baby things’ is taking the parenting world by storm," Jill Gilbert, producer of the BabyTech Summit, said. "Technology is enabling things that moms of yesteryear could have only dreamed. Every challenge is being tackled."
Designer Yves Béhar, beloved by Silicon Valley, has already been turning his attention to the needs of the youngest consumers (and their exhausted parents) with a smart crib called Snoo. The crib rocks agitated babies back to sleep, while its mesh design allows for free flow of air. The baby’s sleep patterns and motion can be monitored by parents via a paired app. The interesting thing about all these devices is not simply the new market segment, but the wealth of opportunities, from health and new services to content and brand collaborations.
The internet of things – the concept that everything from our refrigerator to our bathtub will be connected to the internet – has been around for a while. Tech companies from LG to Samsung have been quick to introduce connected fridges and kitchens that allow consumers to monitor their groceries and shop direct. Now, a new wave of devices and brands is out to refine the movement by creating home products that align with home decor, rendering the technology aspect all but invisible, or at the very least, complementary to the home environment. After all, why does a speaker have to look like a speaker, or be visibly identifiable as tech? Why can’t it match the Tom Dixon lamp?
At the 2016 London Design Festival, the Electro Craft exhibition showcased new products that blend craft with technology. Turkish designer Bilge Nur Saltik’s Loud Object series includes marble candleholders and serving plates that also function as Bluetooth-connected speakers. She aims to integrate electronics with home decoration, imagining "surround sound with your chandelier, vase and centerpiece".
Panasonic’s newest TV prototype could be the tech’s endgame. When not in use, it is completely transparent. With the screen mounted on a glass panel, the TV is, in effect, invisible when it is switched off, allowing objects or decorations to be displayed behind it.
More are set to follow.
Beauty and fashion companies, realising the importance of technology as the common thread that pulls together pretty much everything, are now positioning themselves as technology-first companies, rather than it being their primary category.
Uniqlo was perhaps the first. Founder Tadashi Yanai raised eyebrows when he first described the clothing brand as a technology company about five years ago, and has since invested heavily in developing high-tech fabrics, as well as wrapping technology into stores.
A new wave of devices and brands is creating home products that render the tech all but invisible.
More recently L’Oréal has followed suit – the cosmetics company now has its own tech incubator, in San Francisco. In January 2015, the incubator unveiled the ultra-thin My UV Patch, which adheres to the skin and analyses the amount of UV exposure a user receives, connecting to an app that tracks exposure over time and recommends treatment.
The company is actively following the tech path. "Connected technologies have the potential to completely disrupt how we monitor the skin’s exposure to various external factors," said Guive Balooch, global vice-president of L’Oréal’s technology incubator.
We’re approaching an era where everything from trees to bathroom mirrors are becoming connected to digital interfaces. Gartner predicts almost 21 billion devices will be connected to the internet of things by 2020. Mintel suggests that future implementations could include conductive make-up with sensors, antiperspirants that report on sweat levels and composition, and hair grips that measure hair hydration.
So, could connected plasters and clothing be the next marketing tools? At the very least, marketers should start to rethink the category they’re playing in, and the channel, as well as considering these new interfaces and devices as opportunities to gather valuable data about consumers.
The challenge of connected clothing
Project Jacquard is a significant forerunner: Levi’s 2016 collaboration with Google created a denim jacket that is haptic, connected, and capable of giving the wearer instructions. The concept of connected clothing, long viewed in terms of lit-up T-shirts or stage outfits for entertainers, is now becoming recognised as an opportunity to blend technology more intuitively into our everyday lives.
In March 2016, Emil + Aris launched the Smart Coat, a collection of sleek, battery-powered coats that heat themselves to adapt to changing weather. They are available in cotton or cashmere and wool, starting at £1,195 ($1,480).
The interesting question for marketers is what connected clothing means as a channel. Many have barely moved beyond TV and are only now shifting toward a mobile-first mindset. The smart watch has raised the game even further. How to market through an invisible platform? Will haptic marketing be next? Therein lies a serious challenge.