Why Samsung, not Google, should be the CES Hero

Originally published in Ad Age

Marketers around the world following the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year might have been wondering whether to double down in their dealings with Google or Amazon. Yet any product manufacturer that is focused on its long-term relevance needs to be praying Samsung’s approach is the one that wins out in the end.

The press coverage coming out of CES 2018 this month made it seem like Google and Amazon were all that mattered at the show. Google’s marketing blitz, featuring flashy digital billboards outside hotels such as the Cosmopolitan (a haven for marketers) and 20-foot-tall voice-activated prize machines, led some to name it the show’s unofficial champion. TechCrunch gushed before the show started, “Google Has Planted Its Flag at CES,” while the show concluded with Recode wondering, “Did Google Assistant Win CES 2018?” The coverage of the Google-Amazon rivalry was everywhere, with Wired saying that “the war is on,” Yahoo Finance describing how the two “duke it out” and Mashable declaring that the “arms race is heating up.” If that was the top story at CES, it was a very slow year given that Amazon released its Echo in 2014, and Google released its Home hardware and Assistant software in 2016. I kept reading the coverage and wondering if the press only now discovered that the two US technology titans compete with each other.

What’s particularly disappointing with the coverage is that while some outlets took the liberty of decrying Apple’s lack of visibility at CES, they neglected to mention Samsung’s strategy as an alternative. Consider The New York Times, which answered readers’ mail. In addressing a about Apple, the Times wrote, “…This year, Apple doesn’t seem very relevant here. The show now revolves around Amazon and Google and their battle for domination with voice assistants.” Those two may be the biggest winners, but they’re not the only options.

Some of this can be attributed to the bias of US-based outlets. Looking at Google Trends, worldwide searchers about CES continue to show more  interest in Samsung, while US searchers indicate Google’s prominence (based on search volume, Amazon trailed significantly). Some of this oversight is also likely due to a lack of appreciation of a radical shift in consumers’ relationships with their electronics products. This shift will determine who owns the data that these products generate.

Amazon and Google may compete, but their strategies are similar. Both software companies developed their own voice search capabilities and released voice-activated speakers. Both are oriented around delivering basic information (such as weather and sports updates), entertainment (particularly music), commerce (Amazon directly and Google through partnerships), and smart home controls. Both interact with their respective streaming media players (Fire TV and Chromecast).

Samsung, however, went a different route. While manufacturers such as Bose, JBL, Lenovo, LG, and Sony were at CES touting partnerships with Google and Amazon, Samsung was playing up its rival voice platform called Bixby. The internet-connected fridge has been the product cited for years to signal overhyped technologies, but Samsung adding Bixby to the Family Hub console on its new fridge line ensures that the Korean manufacturer is taking a different route from Amazon and Google. This is the route that marketers need to root for because it’s the only way manufacturers retain control over their data. Additionally, if Samsung is successful, it gives advertisers another potential media outlet. Just as many marketers bristle at the ‘duopoly’ of Google and Facebook online, few will want Google and Amazon to form a duopoly for smart home devices.

Samsung’s approach is so important because of the challenge that all electronics manufacturers face. Manufacturers are racing to partner with Amazon and Google, along with Apple with its HomeKit and CarPlay systems, and Microsoft with Cortana. While such partnerships provide useful, familiar interfaces for consumers, product manufacturers lose all hope of developing deeper, persistent relationships with consumers.

Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have no incentive to share data with manufacturers. While manufacturers might love that consumers engage with their electronics devices and appliances more often, consumers increasingly interact with the software. If there’s any recurring lesson from shifts in media behavior over the past two decades, it’s that manufacturers, publishers, and marketers almost always regret ceding data and relationships to third parties. One can call Samsung’s approach brilliant or quixotic, but at least it knows what’s at stake.