Technology for Life

MacbookA cinema advertisement for a car manufacturer shows a grown man zooming across a car park on a shopping trolley — the backing jingle says ‘Zoom zoom zoom.’

A major telecommunications company promotes a mobile phone showing people from all walks of life flying kites or leaping into piles of flowers, only once showing an image of the product.

A computer manufacturer advertises itself showing historical figures of peace, radicalism and understanding and the words ‘Think different.’ Another hawks the world’s most prominent operating system with the Rolling Stones hit, ‘Start Me Up’.

Welcome to the new world of technology marketing. As corporate activist Naomi Klein says in her book No Logo, ‘Brand X is not a product, but a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, an idea.’

Nowhere is this more important than to technology companies themselves. If they’re worth their salt, it seems, they know what they’re selling — personality and lifestyle, technology you can make uniquely your own or that give you what nothing else in the world can — more time.

The world’s most successful consumer technology companies talk about ‘brand value’ and ‘brand philosophy’, proof that the logo, advertising and physical appearance of the product (and the corporations themselves) is as important as the product.

And in a market with a thousand variations on the seemingly simple mobile phone, image may be even more important. Nokia claims to have ‘the world’s 5th most valuable brand name’. Sony claims ‘superbrand status’, according to their spokesperson.

So what does the new marketing paradigm mean for the way the big players design their products — and themselves?

The Revolution

The move’s been a long time coming, developed by the personality-as-function pioneer, Apple. We all remember the typical computer user pre-1984 — male, pocket protector, brown Niblick walkers. But what’s a typical computer user today? If you’re reading this magazine, you’re almost certainly one yourself. Chances are everyone around you at work or on the train is too.

And the big technology makers know that’s as true today as Apple wanted it to be in 1984. Everything from fridges to personal MP3 players are advertised using the young, the old, male and female, the conservative and the radical.

Because consumer technology — as the likes of Sony, Apple and Nokia seem to maintain — has to be as individual as you are.

A New Sensation

As Sonya Aboudargham, Marketing Communications Manager of BenQ Australia, explains, ‘We manufacture state of the art technology, designed to be good looking and user friendly, to add enjoyment to people’s lifestyles, not just perform its technological function.’

And BenQ is a classic example of a company totally rebranding itself, complete with a new marketing strategy and corporate style.

Formerly Acer Communications & Multimedia, BenQ is what Aboudargham says ‘reflects our new direction. As a brand, BenQ’s core focus is on digital life devices — technology products that enhance lifestyle and bring enjoyment and quality to life.’

The i’s have it

Where did the shift start? As with many of their milestones, Apple seems to have led the charge, not only with 1984’s pivotal Macintosh, but the 1998 release of the iMac — the first global push by a technology seller to make a machine ‘yours’ (even in it’s name).

Of course, the letter ‘i’ has been turning up everywhere from software to company names lately (most companies seem to think it’s some sort of magic formula for technology marketing success). But it was with the original spirit of individuality that Jobs and Co. took our first truly mainstream technological device (the personal computer), and marketed it to the masses instead of the kind of kid Bill Gates was in those days.

As Different as You Are

Now it seems, you don’t just sell computers, cars, phones or fridges, you sell an experience — a machine that enhances (or adopts) your customers’ individuality, or at least fits their lifestyle.

And for Pete’s sake, don’t we deserve a little fun with our machines? As Aboudargham says, ‘There’s no sense in BenQ using the tag line Enjoyment Matters if our products do not comprise an element of enjoyment.’

So are the big guns just on a gravy train of cool advertising and corporate design because that’s what works, or are we as consumers more demanding — or demanding different things?

Antony Wilson, Nokia Australia Corporate Communications Manager, thinks the people have spoken. ‘Our goal,’ he says, ‘is to provide new and beautifully styled products that enhance people’s lifestyles, offer them possibilities to express their personality and turn a functional tool into an object of desire.’

And the proof of the pudding can be seen in just about every mobile phone on the market. They’re rarely marketed just as mobile phones, more as cool accessories that can serve a host of electronic functions. The recently released Nokia 5510 is built for fun, coming with a full QWERTY keyboard (to type SMS messages), an MP3 player and the staple crop of games.

Combine functions like these with the thousands of ringtones, pictures and screen savers you can swap with your friends and the humble mobile phone suddenly becomes a very individual item.

The Age Old Promise

Individuality aside, we’re a time-strapped lot, and the biggest favour technology can do for some is what it was supposed to all along — make life easier.

LG electronics, makers of everything from monitors to clothes dryers and everything in between, has a market philosophy less about groovy contraptions and more about technology giving something back. ‘LG’s promise is to create people-friendly technology that makes life easier,’ says company spokesperson Juliet Powell, ‘The benefit of our products is convenience and time saving.

LG is also aware that while we’re surrounded by technology, there’s still a lot of us who don’t get it. ‘We aim to bring the technology of our products to people in a human way, showing our technology and how easy it is to use.’ Powell explains.

Machines that Evolve

The demand for what Nokia calls ‘Human Technology’ is also transforming products themselves. Not many people remember the black, pink and camouflage coloured computer (circa 1995). Thankfully a failed effort, it reflected a deeper desire — someone sometime was bound to ask themselves why all computers had to come in square beige boxes.

Now, because of the explosion in popularity of SMS, the ergonomics of mobile phone keypads have become a big selling point. Because people are doing everything from their handhelds and not just jotting notes, you can get little fold-away keyboards.

And it isn’t just because we want to have fun, but because life itself has changed. ‘There isn’t a clear line between lifestyle areas like work & leisure any more,’ says BenQ’s Aboudargham. ‘Notebooks allow work to be taken home, the Internet occupies people’s leisure time. Technology has evolved to become a part of the new consumer lifestyle.’

Designs on Your Money

So how does that affect the technology behemoths’ design think tanks? The market’s flooded with products that can do so much (truthfully, some of it quite useless to quality of life). Is advertising odd-looking products using pictures of strangely dressed teenagers covered in facial piercings the only way to move your technology products?

A leader in as many industries as there are kinds of technology in the world, Sony understands what it’s really selling in the face of so much market choice — itself. Lesley White, Assistant Manager of Public Relations for Sony Australia Limited, explains that ultimately, a mobile phone is a mobile phone. ‘For a brand to survive, it needs to build up its brand equity, its emotional relationship with customers — and relevance to them.’ White says, ‘When it can be the only point of difference between brand X and Y, brands need to find common ground with the consumer, and communicating and catering to a lifestyle that consumers understand or aspire to is a good way to build a connection.’

Similarly, according to Nokia, it’s not enough to just build and market a good working machine any more, and maybe never has been. ‘In the modern world people want colour, fun and personalisation in their lives,’ Wilson notes, ‘Henry Ford first offered his cars only in black, but markets mature and offer more variety and innovation. I think increased consumer demand for personalisation is making technology companies meet different lifestyle needs rather than just produce functional tools.’

Shifting Styles

The first technology available to prehistoric hunters was the stone flint — and they still didn’t work as many hours in the day as we do now.

As we move into the 21st century, surrounded by the kind of gadgetry our parents only read about in comics, age-old phenomena will continue — changes in advertising trends, constant flux in the corporate world and the demand for technology to give us more fun and more time.

As long as we keep living life as we know it, the way the market designs its products — and itself — will be along for the ride.