CES 2020 delivered its usual mass of cutting-edge innovation, but also displayed a practical streak, as various big-name marketers demonstrated their growing tech savvy. WARC’s Stephen Whiteside was on the ground in Las Vegas to observe this blurring of two worlds.

Welcome to the “Consumer Experience Show”

Procter & Gamble, one of the largest global advertisers in terms of expenditure, was seemingly ubiquitous at CES this year. And the company’s expansive presence reflected the increasingly pragmatic side of the event, as recent tech fantasies are now developing into real-world solutions for even the most quotidian of products.

Not only did the consumer packaged goods manufacturer have its own booth – complete with digitally-connected toothbrushes and skincare offerings, as well as a virtual-reality experience from toilet roll brand Charmin – but its executives featured in sessions that covered topics like data privacy and blockchain, alongside its more traditional fields of research techniques and marketing.

On several occasions, P&G’s speakers – no strangers to the importance of branding – referenced the Cincinnati, Ohio-based firm’s favored spin on the meaning of “CES”, which it had internally redefined as the “Consumer Experience Show”.

That notion hints at a deeper reality: that legacy enterprises are growing more successful at adopting, testing and scaling new tech, while there is also a heightened focus on commercialization on the part of many startups, too.

Such a positioning also reinforces a decision made by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the organizer of CES, to rebrand in 2015, changing its name from the Consumer Electronics Association. In recent years, the trade body has similarly emphasized that its annual confab be known as CES, rather than the “Consumer Electronics Show”, in a further sign that it now looks far beyond gadgets and gizmos alone.

Walgreens brings innovation to the “last mile”

Walgreens, the pharmacy retailer, gave further proof that technology is becoming table stakes for what may once have been regarded as sleepy, slow-moving categories.

The brand has undertaken a range of initiatives related to the “last mile”, a phrase that describes how a product ultimately gets into a customer’s hands. An example of Walgreens’ endeavors here is testing on-demand delivery in New York City via a tie-up with Postmates. More ambitious still is a test program using drones to fly supplies directly to consumers.

In effect, Walgreens is exploring how product delivery can be transformed into a brand touchpoint. And its approach feeds through to a vital consideration as technologies reach mainstream usage: namely, that hardware and software can often be replicated at lower costs over time. As such, brands will need to inject a unique layer of utility or emotional engagement into their proposition to stand apart from the crowd.

“The key is last-mile portfolio solutions as diverse as the customer journeys that you have in your own business or product or service,” explained Vineet Mehra, global chief marketing officer at holding company Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Delta’s tech-powered research

Another practical-meets-innovative use of technology was discussed by Delta Airlines in its CES keynote.

The Atlanta-based carrier implemented a qualitative research initiative that kitted out people with wearable devices, as well as asking them to film their personal travel experience. As a result, it could monitor how members of its sample reacted physiologically to different moments of stress, and so understand the wider context of this response.

The exercise yielded valuable insights for passengers and staff alike, and so fits in with a company-wide objective to “make travel easier, less stressful, and I dare say it, enjoyable”, Ed Bastian, Delta’s chief executive officer, informed the CES assembly.

The brand is putting its mobile app at the heart of this plan, with potential solutions ranging from picking up and dropping off a customer’s bags through to introducing a premium ridesharing experience via its affiliation with Lyft, the taxi app. (Bastian also highlighted a desire to provide free in-flight WiFi, an especially popular idea with the connectivity-obsessed CES delegates.)

Connecting the dots with the “experiential Internet of Things”

Princess Cruises, which is owned by Carnival Corp., has taken the connected ideal outlined by Delta and already made it a reality on a number of its cruise ships.

Thanks to its OCEAN Medallion, a piece of wearable tech sent to every customer before they set sail, the brand has been able to craft personalized experiences at scale. Powered by a swathe of sensors and portals, this system – among other things – lets an ocean-going consumer:

• navigate around a ship;

• learn about dining and entertainment options;

• order drinks for delivery throughout the ship;

• locate family members;

• enjoy customized games and content.

Carnival’s activation brings the Internet of Things – the descriptor given to a network of interconnected digital devices – to life in a manner that meaningfully benefits the consumer, according to John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer at the company.

“What we’ve done with Carnival Corporation on the Princess Cruise brand is to create an ‘experiential IoT’ … to ultimately empower that guest experience,” he said.

And the most important component of this experience, Padgett argued, is that the customer does not need to know (or, indeed, care) about the underlying tech. “The key is to always remember the guest – the consumer – couldn’t care less about technology,” he said.

“What they’re looking for is their experience; they're looking for their service; they’re looking for that product they value most.”

Apple focuses on the core value of privacy

Apple – like fellow tech giants Google and Facebook – does not rely on CES as a launchpad for new products, preferring instead to run its own yearly gathering for that purpose.

Consequently, the appearance of Jane Horvath, Apple’s senior director/global privacy, did not bring revelations about its forthcoming devices and services. Rather, she placed an emphasis on how the Cupertino, California-based organization aims to protect user data.

“At Apple, the way we define privacy is to put the consumers in the driver's seat,” she said. “They should have control over their data; they should have choices of [what happens to] their data.”

CES 2020 made it clear that long-standing businesses – think retailers and packaged-goods manufacturers – have been forced to develop tech products and digital services to stay relevant with consumers. And Horvath’s plea to give users control over their data flagged up an adjacent issue: that tech firms could benefit from adopting established marketing best practices as they seek to strengthen trust and brand equity.

If Silicon Valley fails to heed growing anxiety surrounding its data stewardship, a burgeoning “techlash” is likely to gain further momentum. Regulators are also taking putative steps in this area, as with the California Consumer Privacy Act and the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation.

To help protect their own interests, and the interests of their advertising customers, the big digital platforms should consider looking to the traditional marketing masters and learn how to put consumer interests first.