The Honest Marketer’s Guide to CES

In my first column for Ad Age since joining Storyhunter, I wrote a post previewing what seemed to be the hot trends at CES. Of course, these CES prom kings and queens were named the ‘winners’ before the show even started. The more polished, better edited version is in Ad Age; you can read it below here as well.

The Honest Marketer’s Guide to CES

Every year, marketers are inundated with trend reports about the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Most of these reports have nothing to do with consumers, electronics, or the annual Las Vegas show; instead, they promote the topics that most excite the pundit.

This report deconstructs the others. It might be the only truly honest one you’ll read, written by someone who has attended CES and written these kinds of reports for more than a decade. Here’s the real story behind the so-called hottest trends of CES 2018.

Blockchain becomes “trend of the year”: What does blockchain have to do with CES? Do you write “blockchain” or “the blockchain”? Should “blockchain” be capitalized? Does the pundit think blockchain and Bitcoin are synonymous? Does the writer liberally mention “Ethereum” or “Litecoin” or “Ripple” because he heard one should no longer solely reference Bitcoin? Is the pundit so creative with keyword stuffing that he writes how blockchain will have an impact on other CES mainstay trends such as self-driving cars, drones, virtual reality, and 8K (ultra-high-definition) televisions? None of it matters because barely anyone exhibiting or presenting at CES will be doing anything meaningful with blockchain this year. Still, it will be all everyone is talking about, largely because they will be wondering why everyone is talking about it. The number one question most people will have is if it’s too late to get in on the gold rush.

It’s a car show: For years, pundits have been referring to CES as the “Car Electronics Show” (the first to make the pun, based on references found in Google, is a Japanese report by Reiji Asakura in 2013). By 2015, practically every automaker at CES was showing off self-driving cars, a technology that will take several more years – and possibly more than a decade – before it can revolutionize sectors such as shipping, transportation, retail, and urban planning. In the meantime, it’s hard to top self-driving cars until flying cars become viable, and that will take much longer. That means for the next decade, if you want to see how marketers can master recycling better than a Patagonia devotee, read the automotive sections from anyone’s CES recaps year after year.

Marketers hear voices: Voice is seen as some second or tenth coming of marketing. It’s on countless CES trend lists this year, just like it was the year before. Amazon has joined the handful of companies that need no presence at the conference to dominate the conversation. This year, one electronics brand after another will announce a voice-activated device, typically powered by Amazon, Google, or Microsoft. For marketers, those voices won’t sound like angels singing “Hallelujah”; they’ll sound like Haley Joel Osment telling Bruce Willis, “I see dead people.” Osment’s next line is even more chilling: “They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” Marketers seem unable to grasp how dead they are when it comes to voice. A handful of branded voice apps are very good and could prove valuable to marketers. Yet for every person interacting with a brand’s app, expect 10,000 other people to chat with Amazon to buy the cheapest well-rated item in any category, and that’s not usually going to be a product from a brand with an eight- or nine-figure ad budget.

5G is the new LTE: 5G will make your LTE feel like a 1200 baud modem. It will be like trading in your Tesla for a ride on Virgin Galactic. It’ll be like going from the endless cab lines of yesteryear to calling a Lyft. Yes, superfast mobile broadband is coming. Smartphone users will love it, once they upgrade to the currently non-existent smartphones since current ones don’t yet support 5G. Internet-connected devices (the Internet of Things) and bandwidth-heavy technologies like virtual reality will work better.  But it won’t matter too much for marketers since the mobile ship set sail long ago, and the main hold-ups for technologies like IoT and VR are the applications for it, not the speed. Downloading “Black Mirror” episodes in a matter of seconds will be a fun upgrade though.

CES remains a valuable experience for thousands of marketers. A large part of the event is what I once called “Shadow CES,” where marketers meet with sellers and agencies for 2018 planning, and many of those marketers don’t make it to a single CES exhibit. The business opportunities are real, but a lot of the most buzzworthy trends are a reflection of the pundits and not the event. Even if you don’t attend the event, just tell people that you’re so excited for how 5G will pave the way for blockchain-powered voice apps. That makes at least as much