Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vroom vroom ding ding part II

Last week, I discussed what consumer electronics marketers could learn from their counterparts in the automotive industry.  Today, let’s see if the wizards of transistors can return the favor.

While I identified three marketing practices from the auto world (sub-branding, service as a brand and racing/competition), I think that CE has only one big lesson to teach.  However, as Bugs Bunny might have said, it’s a doozy.

The CE industry, just like the auto industry, thrives on features: HD video and four-wheel drive, auto-focus and turbo-charging, fashion colors and the almighty lighted vanity mirror.  However, in CE, integration of those features makes powerful brands.  

The victory of VHS over Betamax in videocassette recorder wars (for those of you under 35, kindly read up here and stop bothering us old farts) represents a good example of integration beating features.  Both formats could record shows and play back Hollywood movies.  Aficionados preferred Beta’s image and sound quality.  So why did VHS win?  The VHS standard integrated a very valuable feature: the ability to record six hours--essentially a whole night’s viewing--on one cassette.  

Man, am I old

From the consumer point of view, VHS integrated more relevant features than Beta.  In effect, it turned VHS from a VCR into a more complete entertainment device.

Naturally, we can’t very well have the feature integration discussion without mentioning Apple.  No other CE manufacturer has understood the value of integration as have the Cupertinoids.  Other personal computers offered word processing and graphic design capability before the Macintosh, but the addition of the mouse and a visual operating system brought the computer out of the lab and into the family room.  Other manufacturers offered MP3 players before the iPod, but Apple integrated the hardware and software required to make it a snap to use.  Other phones could play music before the iPhone, get the idea.

However, other manufacturers recognized the value of integration over features.   TiVo popularlized the DVR, but cable companies, aided by set-top box manufacturers, recognized that consumers would adopt them faster if they integrated the DVR with other cable services.  While critics complained that set-top box DVRs lacked TiVo’s slick interface, consumers didn’t seem to mind, because they had one less device to worry about.  Camera phones have put pressure on standalone digital cameras not because of superior optics (don’t get me started), but because they take several steps out of the shoot-and-share experience.

So what would integration look like for auto marketers?

The state of the automotive advertising art at the close of 2011 centers around brand and brand identity: the car for smart people, the car for boring, safe people, the car for flaming jerks.  At first glance, it would seem that carmakers do not focus on features as CE manufacturers have often done.  However, take a closer look.

When the voiceover gets done trying to sound tough, it launches into features such as the 8-speed transmission and 31 MPG.  What does Chrysler expect drivers to do with this information?  Certainly, they want to get across what I’m sure the creative brief described as “attitude,” but since when did attitude care about how many speeds its transmission had or what kind of mileage it got?

As a rule, car ads tend to use features to support a brand image, whether that consists of performance, fuel economy or the ability to put people to sleep.  Instead, these ads could instead give people a better idea of what to do with these cars, other than the obvious.  Will they serve as a second home?  A playroom?  An amusement park ride?

Clearly, automakers have a different set of hurdles than CE manufacturers.  New cars cost more than $10,000 and approach infinity.  Meanwhile, relatively few things in Best Buy cost more than $2,500.  As a result, car marketers have a lot more to prove than CE marketers.

That said, car marketers have a lot more competition, relatively speaking.  Let’s face it, all cars perform the same basic functions whereas a TV and a camera do very different things.  Moreover, many CE segments have only half-a-dozen or so competitors.  Because a Honda buyer could very conceivably cross-shop Toyota as well as, say, Audi, car makers have all the more incentive to stand out.  Thus they should use the integration concept to sharpen their appeal.

Of course, the automakers have little incentive to listen to little old me.  When I’m wrong, I get yelled at by my wife.  When they’re wrong, they get bailed out by the government.

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