Sunday, September 27, 2009

It's All About the Bling.

The accessorization of the consumer electronics market.

It’s not news to anyone that the era of function-first shopping is over. The past 20 years have seen a consumer metamorphosis from the “what can it do for me” sensibilities of our parents and grandparents to the fashion-forward, “what does it say about me” focus of the 21st century consumer.

Certainly status and appearance have always been a factor in product development and retail merchandising, but only recently have we seen it become the focus across so many product categories. The automotive industry, for instance is old hat at designing and developing products that sell not only for their function and reliability, but give their owners a sense of status, ideally above their actual position in life. The consumer electronics industry, on the other hand has only recently come to the realization that style, appearance, and the perception of cool that surrounds a product are often times more important its features in getting consumers to bite.

As with many aspects of life over the span of the 20th century, our retail motivations have shifted toward the superficial. Many in today’s sea of younger and younger consumers are more interested in how a product looks “on” them than how it works for them. They prefer to have the latest rather than the greatest. This has no doubt been a boon for manufacturers who have reaped the benefits of short-lived trends and a reduced consumer longevity requirement from their products. Dominating the playing field, for a split-second or for the entire game has become about being the next big thing – and changing frequently enough to hold that position. Though there are still many good products out there, the game is more about the mystique of the product than it ever has been.

Apple, its iPod and iPhone are perfect examples of this trend in buyership. In both cases, Apple set out to redefine what cool was in an already crowded category. First they did what any good R & D department would do given this task; they took an already solid idea and made some improvements. Then they did what Apple does better than any other company in the electronics world – they set out down marketing and P.R. avenues specifically designed to turn their products into fashion accessories. This simple approach resulted in two products that were new in neither concept nor execution, but have come to define mobile electronics over the past decade.

Granted the development of both “iProducts” resulted in devices that leapt far enough ahead of the competition that even more than a decade later, the catch-up game is still afoot. Despite this fact, the real magic was in the marketing. Apple didn’t simply box them up and sell them into the retail channel. They turned them into icons among their target customers. Overnight, far more based on fashion and fun than anything feature-related, these two category-leading products became cool-o-meters for everyone listening to music on the go or talking on a cell phone. This is becoming the trend in industry after industry. Features and function are positioned secondary to the products image – the cool factor.

As an art director, I’ve spent the past two decades watching, dissecting, and comparing anything and everything I see that could be considered marketing (this habit is both a blessing and a curse according to my wife). Packaging seems to be the most obviously transformed (and transforming) medium out there. I have watched a slow decline in the informational, more utilitarian package, where unique selling point (USP), strong feature bulles, and lifestyle are critical to the traditional “packaging formula.” These ubiquitous, packaging 101 elements are being cast aside in favor of image and presentation. The box on the shelf is no longer an advertisement for the product, outlining the benefits of its ownership, it is a portrait of the consumer who will buy it.

In today’s retail isles, consumers aren’t interested in reading more than they absolutely have to. They walk down the isle scanning the products available to them, and pick up the one that does two things best (this is Important): matches their predetermined price point, and looks like it costs more. Since I’ve been working in the world of mobile accessories for the past few years, and am most familiar with the details of the category, I’ll use Bluetooth headsets as my example.

For all practical purposes Bluetooth headsets are wireless communication devices that are meant to make life easier and safer for the user. For all non-practical purposes, Bluetooth headsets are jewelry; accessories to be worn and coveted by others. There are still those who buy electronics for practical reasons, but they are no longer the majority. More often these days the reason behind a given purchase is the ability to display or announce that purchase. 1080P HDTVs are a prime example of this. Does it really make the experience twice as good – or does the buyer just want to be able to say he has the biggest, highest resolution television in the neighborhood?

I digress. Back to Bluetooth.

There are currently three tiers of Bluetooth headsets found at any comprehensive electronics retailer. There are the low cost products; designed, packaged and displayed for the no nonsense bargain hunter who is just interested in getting a headset in their ear for under $40. From a functional and a marketing perspective these products are all but irrelevant, but because this market exists and will always exist, it is requisite that manufacturers develop a skew or two for this tier (though I challenge you to find a $40 Jawbone or BlueAnt headset).

The individual shopping on price alone is often just looking to get a Bluetooth headset. Peroid. Because you’re always cooler when you have a Bluetooth in your ear. This purchase is therefore made based on the cool factor – but only in the most superficial way. Unless their boss has required them to use a Bluetooth for safety reasons, or they are just that safety conscious naturally, this customer is shopping based on looks. The coolest headset within their price range, according to their individual taste, is what they will purchase. Simple. Doesn’t require a lot of marketing savvy or fancy embellishments. Show the product, state the features, and do it on the cheap.

The premium products represent a minority of the overall shelf space but inevitably dominate it with their injection molded packages draped in foil and embossing; these typically ring up between $90 and $149. They inevitably set the category’s tone in many ways.

The premium customer is one of two people. They either walk in knowing they want a specific headset regardless of price (for form or function reasons), or they are seduced up the price scale by the museum-quality packaging and Design Award-worthy hardware that defines this tier. Those manufacturers who have made the choice to focus on this tier understand that their target is looking for the next big thing and they are often not concerned with price. Their formula is simple as well, but much more refined, create a solid performing product with exceptional aesthetic appeal, then package it in a way that makes it look the part of a $129 headset. This means stripping away big bold feature statements and bullet points that would make their product seem defensive, as if it had to give the buyer a laundry list of reasons to buy it. Instead, a primary feature or two are whispered in small, graphically pleasing text on the front, and the rest are relegated to 10 pt text on the rear.

Then there is the “everything in between” tier. This is the space where many of the major brands like Motorola, Samsung, Jabra, and Plantronics live and compete. It represents the vast majority of the available products and a wide variety of tactical approaches to package development and design. It also represents the most complicated, difficult and opportunity laden tier in the category.

A few of these manufacturers don’t venture into the premium tier, but they are all amply represented in the low. As for form and function, there are many quality performers in this group, some of which are on equal footing with much higher priced products (I’ve seen the data), but for some reason their creators insist on throwing them into this middle mix.

Following Apple’s macro example on a micro level, the high tier products have it right. They all manage to display their hardware in a way that increases its presence, they don’t crowd their boxes with bullet points and lifestyle image, and above all, what verbiage they do include on their packages assumes that their consumer is at least as intelligent as they are. By doing this, they are transcending simple retail presentation and selling the customer an image; a perception; the idea of status and quality. Because of this, when put to the spreadsheet, they don’t necessarily have to outperform their lower priced competitors to outsell them – and they always attract more attention. Ask any mobile electronics connoisseur if they know Jawbone. Whether they own one or not, they’ll gush and say how cool they are.

My point is this – if these middle tier “nobody’s” hope to compete and truly demonstrate their selling capabilities against their “diamond studded” upper tier competitors, they should stop trying to gain the lead within their tier and follow by example. Next time they revamp their look, they should take a look up the pricing scale and also rethink their approach. Whether this means truly stepping up to the plate with higher quality materials and passing that expense on to the consumer, or simply taking a step back and looking at how they can streamline and simplify their existing form factors to better convey a sense of intelligence and quality, I’m not sure – that’s for the individual manufacturer to decide. Until they do this, they will continue to swim unnoticed in the sea of mid-tier headsets that are their competitors.


Next time your browsing your local strip center, stop into an AT&T outlet. They have recently redesigned their internal branding scheme to include repackaging those Bluetooth headsets they offer (from various manufacturers). Oh, the $90 plus big boys still retain their original manufacturer packaging (and all of the consumer awe that accompanies it), but everyone else has received a facelift ala the latest AT&T brand direction. These simple orange, white and transparent packages are elegant, intelligent, and when compared to the upper tier headset packages, offer a very cost effective and competitive presence. Way to go AT&T.

If a manufacturer would introduce this level of thought, sophistication, and innovation to their Best Buy or Walmart skews, a front-runner in the mid-tier Bluetooth retail channel might just emerge.

No comments:

Post a Comment