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CES 2021 Confirms Need for Marketers and Brands to Reimagine, Not Replace

CES 2021 Confirms Need for Marketers and Brands to Reimagine, Not Replace


By Cathy Planchard, Allison+Partners, All Told Global President

Organizations that spent the first half of 2020 adjusting to meet the pandemic’s challenges learned by mid-summer their pivots would be longer and deeper than expected. This became more evident when events and tradeshows had to be cancelled, postponed or moved online, particularly CES 2021.


The world’s largest tradeshow, which brings 175,000 people to Las Vegas every year, will be fully virtual for the first time. For brands “exhibiting,” the implications of CES’ move run far and wide. How can you showcase your technologies in an environment where they can’t be touched? How can you still get media attention when you can’t physically track down reporters to bring them to your booths? What about all the in-person prospecting and deals you expected to make?

The solution is to reimagine, not replace.

Mark your calendars for our upcoming webinar on Wednesday, Oct. 14th so you don’t miss out on insights and best practices shared by our seasoned CES pros to maximize your investments in 2021.

Production values

We’re no longer restricted to the same old formats, which can be an advantage. You can turn a previously physical event into a digital experience and/or reimagine the purpose to drive even more value. But it’s not as simple as just moving the speech, meeting, experience or demo online.

As a brand or marketer, consider – does the presentation, panel or demo really need to be live? Unless you offer the audience a chance to actively engage with the content, the answer is no. If you planned to do a quick product demo or give a speech without audience participation, there’s no reason to go live virtually. Instead, tape in advance with high production values and premiere it, similar to a new song or movie premiere. Present content in a moment in time to build buzz and anticipation.

Marketers also now have the opportunity to use a mix of different platforms to offer a better overall experience. Think about your past in-person speeches or product demos. Most of the audience was likely far away from the stage and struggled to see, while the speaker was likely confined to a podium. But with recorded video, you can change the perspective, use multiple cameras and angles, and showcase products in ways you couldn’t in-person. Bring the audience into settings they haven’t been able to see before. Because you’re no longer confined to a stage, now everyone can have the best seat in the house.

While production values are important, equally so is the presentation itself. During the pandemic, many have learned the hard way that reading scripts on a Zoom camera or self-shot video doesn’t create a quality or engaging experience. The medium is intimate, the camera is close and reading from a script comes off as robotic or wooden.

It’s even more important now to be personable and approachable to convey warmth, emotion and excitement. Words matter. Without being there in person to see, hear or touch the latest product, you must choose the right descriptive words. Delivery also matters. You can’t hide emotions from a camera that’s just inches from your face, so the delivery must have genuine energy and enthusiasm.

Brands and marketers should also factor in the audience’s accessibility and experience in ways they might not have previously. For example, you can use many custom online platforms and interfaces to connect with audiences. But some might require audiences to install new software or set up unusual or new camera configurations. Avoid putting the technological or logistical burdens on your audience.

Also think about what would best serve them. Would it be awkward to put 10 strangers in a virtual room and force them to chat? Do they even want to be on camera? You might need to create ice breakers or only put people together who already have a relationship, just like you would when assigning seating at tables for in-person events.

Likewise, rethink opportunities to personally meet the media. At past CES tradeshows, exhibitors connected with working media at parties, dinners, drinks and other hospitality events to pitch their wares and build relationships. Now, those meetings will migrate to the virtual world. Don’t force a Zoom happy hour on random media members and create awkward moments.

Also reimagine pre-briefings to make them more engaging and relevant. In the past, brands did not reveal everything in the pre-brief, opting instead to announce the big surprises at live, in-person press conferences. The possibility of surprise was a good way to lure media to your stage. Not anymore. Reporters can’t be at all live online press events and may opt to watch a replay instead. And it will be more difficult to get media attention at the last minute. It’s better to give reporters as much information upfront in the pre-brief and not sit on the big surprise. Giving reporters as much information in advance to write a full story is also something they will appreciate and remember.

Media matters

The fully virtual CES format eliminates the chance to let the media literally get its hands on new products. If or when possible, brands should consider including products in media kits or care packages or arranging one-on-one meetings with the most important media targets to give them a change to get hands-on. Given the pandemic, any one-on-ones should obviously be done under strict protocols to protect everyone’s health.

In addition, Media Day moved a week later than usual to Jan. 11. As a result, reporters will likely have a long day of online events, so make sure your presentations are as direct and engaging as possible. During the past six months of virtual meetings, we’ve learned the media has not been shy about using social media to complain when online presentations have tanked or to praise when they’ve gone well. And don’t hold a standalone online event unless it’s genuinely warranted, especially in a crowded week like CES.

Ratings for the EMMYs, NBA and political party conventions all dropped in 2020. The reality is CES may not have the same attendance or impact this year either as it competes for attention. Focus on your core group of media, prioritizing quality over quantity. Paid content distribution will also be essential to replace your impact with media, key opinion leaders and influencers. Consider paid amplification of key media coverage and other brand assets to help boost impressions.

Rethink the hospitality and entertaining format

While the media will be pulled in many different virtual directions, so too will brands, marketers and customers who had expected to prospect and make deals face-to-face. Traditionally, there would have been hospitality suites with a variety of people coming and going, not necessarily having to interact with others unless by choice. Online, there won’t be a chance for them to just watch or participate passively.

Again, make sure their experiences are meaningful and not awkward. Create experiences both online and offline that feel highly curated and special. Make meaningful connections by sending direct mail kits, premium swag and brand assets. They can still come into an online environment, get brand messaging and learn all about the products and things they were supposed to. But they need to also have a fun, highly entertaining experience. Combining online and offline elements will add a much-needed interlude from continuous screen time.

As January quickly approaches, if marketers think about approaching CES in the same manner as past years, they will reap disappointment. Brands must actively reshape their marketing and communications strategies to find new ways to connect and garner attention in a crowded online environment.

Cathy Planchard is global president of All Told, the integrated marketing offerings for Allison+Partners. She oversees the company’s content, digital, creative, research and measurement teams.