The brands are back at CES 2020: what impacted at this year's showcase of technology

The brands are back at CES 2020

Early in January, enough people to fill Madison Square Gardens (or the O2 arena) eight times over descend upon Las Vegas. Between the crisp desert mornings and sultry evenings, the multitude packs itself into keynotes, panel discussions, and tradeshow booths dotting a four-mile-long "strip" that is home to CES. Most come for the technology – the ever-expanding TV screens with the ever-shrinking bezels, the next generation of ping pong-playing robots, bitcoin and blockchain. I come for the brands. More specifically, to see how brands not typically considered tech brands (in the modern sense of the word) use technology to bring meaning and value to their customers' lives.

CES has been executing a gentle pivot away from pure tech and consumer electronics to more of a focus on applied innovation. In that spirit, Delta Air Lines' chief executive, Ed Bastian took the stage at the Venetian (albeit after a brief delay in keeping with airline norms) to launch the show. Of course, Delta's association with tech reaches as far back as Kitty Hawk, but its connection to CES is of a different nature. As Bastian said, he was not at CES to chase shiny new objects but to seek applied innovation that enabled meaningful human interaction. In saying so, he echoed the sentiments of a bevy of companies and brands including P&G, Serta, Moen, Colgate, AARP, and John Deere, who were all exhibiting at CES.

The Delta keynote was an impressive showcase of customer and employee innovations: transforming their app into a payment system using SkyMiles as currency, an expanded ecosystem of players like Lyft that plug into the Delta experience, a robotic exoskeleton for employees to easily lift heavy weights, and more. One application, in particular, stood out. Imagine you, a dozen other people, and I gather at the flight information board at the airport terminal. What each of us sees on that same board will be unique to our situations – gates, upgrades, weather at the destination, baggage claim, even the language in which we want this rendered. Delta demonstrated this technology in their booth and is bringing it to the Detroit airport later this year. Future enhancements could include a fully individualized and guided experience through the entire airport. The airline calls this "parallel reality" – no glasses to wear, headsets to strap on, or phones to hold up; it all happens with the naked eye; a reality that fits the customers' life, not requiring them to adapt to how the brand wants to be experienced.

Delta is a newbie at CES, but MasterCard is an old hand. Last year at CES, chief marketing officer Raja Rajamannar issued a distress call for CMOs who failed to embrace the full scope of technical and analytical complexity that described modern marketing. (I piggybacked on the theme to write in this publication how CMOs had, at their peril, abandoned marketing in its truest sense). MasterCard has grown to be a news-maker at CES. In 2019, it chose this venue to announce it was dropping the name from the brand mark. This year, it launched the brand's first music single as part of its overall sonic branding strategy. Yes, you heard that right. Nadine Randle sings soulfully about love and loss, and not about credit cards, in Merry Go Round. Eleven more songs will follow to comprise an album called, you guessed it, Priceless.

The experience journey that Mastercard has embarked on, winding its way through pop-up restaurants, bespoke macaron flavors (passion and optimism) and now, wistful love songs, maybe a bit of a head-scratcher. But that's if you haven't heard Rajamannar's outlook on marketing. He is among a minority of CMOs with their business heads screwed on tight, espousing a clear line of sight to the business and its results in a manner that harks back to a classic general management approach. That's the steak to the sizzle of experiences that Mastercard is crafting to keep consumers awake and alert to a brand that runs the risk of being relegated to the dreary desolation of payments. Mastercard is getting the basics right, then building relevance with and getting attention from a target population who find most financial services brands about as exciting as a five-day cricket test match.

The excitement was not in short supply for Quibi's keynote featuring Jeffrey Katzenberg (of Disney fame), and Meg Whitman (ex-eBay and HP). Ever seen commuters on local trains in Mumbai or on Tokyo's serpentine subway system glued to phones, often watching short-form content on platforms like YouTube? Did you know the preponderance of the data passing through T-Mobile's network is from mobile video, primarily short-form? Enter, Quibi. Short for quick bites, Quibi offers mobile videos, four to ten minutes of length, which are, in Katzenberg's words,"stories optimized for viewing on the go." At a time when the streaming wars will continue to heat up through 2020, Quibi is a fresh take with enormous potential.

The service is designed with millennials in mind. It is expressly for mobile (for example, with a neat feature that flips the video from full-screen landscape to full-screen portrait at will), boasts power-packed content from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro, and will have the might of T-Mobile's 68 million customers as the launch pad. Unsurprisingly, the first year's ad inventory is already sold out to the likes of Discover, Walmart, Anheuser-Busch, and early collaborator P&G.

P&G is all over CES. The company's Lifelab showcases brand innovations (like the Lumi smart system from Pampers), new products from P&G Ventures, and even hosts panels, like one on AI with participants from GM and Intuit. In a less-frequented corner of the booth sits the Gillette TREO, a razor designed to be used to shave someone else, with added safety features and engineered to be held like a pen by the one doing the shaving. It reminded me of my father – unable to shave in his last few years, beaming ear-to-ear when the barber left him all natty and spruce, basking in a heap of compliments.

I came to be amazed by a new breed of brands and the wonders they wrought with sensors, object detectors, connected apps, voice activators, and more. I left most moved by a blade on a stick. In the end, what stuck with me most had little to do with the tech. It had everything to do with an emotional trigger. And in that lies an important lesson for brands.

Dipanjan Chatterjee is vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Watch Gordon Young's CES walkthrough report from the conference floor at this year's event.

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