Focus on the customer to avoid innovation for innovation’s sake

Happy new year.

I’ve always found it curious that the most disruptive industry on the planet – consumer technology – still relies on one of the oldest and most established methods to promote itself: the hotel business centre-based conference.

The humble conference is still a valuable way of bringing the business community together of course – even the most digital products require the most analogue showcase – but there’s something odd to me about the annual ritual of convening in airless exhibition centres to demonstrate new products and services, particularly for an industry that prides itself on cutting-edge innovation.

And so to Las Vegas, which next week plays host to the annual Consumer Electronics Show – CES. This massive trade event showcases new technologies and next-generation innovations from global companies of all shapes and sizes, including some of the world’s biggest brands. It’s also the forum for a huge amount of hype and fevered speculation as commentators and businesses try to identify ‘the next big thing’ that could disrupt markets, transform customer behaviours and create manifold market opportunities and ecosystems in the years to come.

Having worked within consumer technology for several years now, my views on mega-events like CES are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, I’m always keen to read the standout news stories from these events and keep up with the latest gadgets, apps and devices coming down the pipeline.

But on the other hand, I’m wary of getting dragged into the hype machine myself. As savvy businesses know, innovation for innovation’s sake is never the answer – new technology must meet a real customer need and support wider business strategies.

CES, Las Vegas

Indeed for all the world-changing technology that has come out of CES over the last 50 years, there have also been plenty of flops that have their place in a rogues’ gallery of useless inventions. Often this is simply because businesses offer products for which there is no genuine customer need.

Consider, for example, how a number of companies have tried and failed to present ‘smart belts’ as the next great innovation during previous editions of CES. These devices, which are designed to prevent weight gain by alerting the wearer to their expanding waistline, ignore the fact that for centuries people have been able to monitor changes in their weight without the need for such digital gadgetry. Just because something can be connected to the internet doesn’t mean it should be – or that people necessarily want it to be.

“Innovation for innovation’s sake is never the answer – new technology must meet a real customer need and support wider business strategies”

CES offers established and newcomer brands the opportunity to steal the limelight on a global stage. But each year reminds us that the adage of “there’s no such thing as bad PR” is clearly untrue. Lest we forget, the products that attracted the most column inches in 2017 were the Juicero, a $400 wi-fi connected juicer which has since gone into liquidation (pun intended) and the Nissin Ramen Fork, a fork fitted with noise-cancelling technology that, when connected to a mobile app, emits a sound at a certain wavelength to drown out the socially-unacceptable sound of noodle slurping.

At other times, businesses are either too early to market with their new product or too late. Timing is everything, after all, and success depends on a company’s ability to read market trends and launch their product at the right time, and in the right way. At CES in 2009, for example, the Palm Pre smartphone was launched to great fanfare, with analysts praising its slick features such as a slide-out keyboard and outstanding voice quality.

Unfortunately for Palm, iPhone and BlackBerry were already established market-leaders. And it takes more than glowing reviews from hyper-specialist tech reviewers to differentiate a mobile device enough from the established global brands to make a dent in the marketplace. After HP acquired Palm in 2010, production of the struggling Pre was halted altogether.

The Juicero machine

Yet despite these cautionary tales, we shouldn’t forget that since the first CES in 1967, the show has also featured the debuts of such hugely successful technology as the VCR, the Xbox video game console and high-definition television. This makes it all the more intriguing for the onlooker to try to decipher the hits from the misses each time the show comes around.

At this year’s CES, it will be particularly interesting to see some of the latest developments in smart home technology, whether that be connected thermostats, home security systems or appliances like fridges and washing machines. Thanks to the rising popularity of voice-activated smart ‘hubs’ like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, this technology is starting to enter the mainstream, changing the way we think about everyday products and services in our homes.

“Timing is everything, and success depends on a company’s ability to read market trends and launch their product at the right time, and in the right way”

The concept of a smart home has excited businesses for a long time, primarily because of the enormous wealth of personal data it would open up that could transform the way brands interact with customers. Again though, businesses must exercise caution when considering such technology, particularly in cases where customers may find it pointless, intrusive or both.

Furthermore, does virtual reality actually have a consumer future, or is it just a ‘nice to have’ or marketing tool? I am, as yet, still unconvinced.

The goal of business should be to keep a close eye on market trends to understand how customer attitudes and behaviours are changing, how new technology fits into that changing picture and how their brands can remain relevant and take advantage of the new market opportunities such technology throws up.

Google’s founder and CEO Larry Page has a very clear take on creating consumer successes. He challenges his teams to design products that pass “the toothbrush test”, creating habitual, life-improving benefits to billions of people every day.

It’s a fine balancing act to get right – and one that we should all be thinking about amid the headlines coming out of CES next week. As this year’s Juiceros and Nissin Ramen Forks will learn, sometimes it’s good to heed the advice of the locals: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. | @SteRosenthal | @TheMBSGroup