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Close to 100,000 people descended on Barcelona this week for Mobile World Congress, one of the industry’s largest trade shows. They were there to see the latest smartphones launches from the likes of Samsung, Sony and LG and to find out about new technology that could revolutionise how people communicate.

For marketers, it is a chance to experience new technology, meet brands and companies disrupting their industries and consider the future of their brands. Here are the top takeaways from 2016’s event.

Redefining the smartphone

The big smartphone makers sounded weary, rather than excited, about unveiling their new mobile devices this year. Brands such as Samsung, LG and Sony all acknowledged that most consumers do not care about flashy new features anymore. Instead, the phone manufacturers sought to redefine the way people think about their phones by talking up new potential uses and applications.

LG announced an “ecosystem” of new products to accompany its launch of the G5 phone, including a virtual reality (VR) headset, a rolling robot for remote home monitoring and a hi-fi system from Bang & Olufsen that plugs into the G5 for better sound quality. It also launched a sub-brand for these products (LG Playground) and an app for controlling them (LG Friends Manager) as it looked to present itself as a more dynamic lifestyle brand.

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The Aldebaran robot was displayed at Microsoft’s exhibit at Mobile World Congress

“When smartphones were introduced, we were so excited and [people] downloaded five or six apps every day,” said LG CEO Juno Cho. “These days, we don’t see much excitement, even when a new smartphone is released. Has people’s appetite for fun disappeared? Of course not – at LG, we think the smartphone’s best days are ahead.”

Samsung’s head of mobile DJ Koh made a similar observation at the launch of the Galaxy S7
and S7 Edge smartphones. But he also claimed that Samsung is “redefining what is possible” with a phone by developing its smartphone-enabled Gear VR system and by offering “console quality” mobile gaming through a partnership with developer Epic Games.

Sony, however, complained that society is becoming “less human” as people focus more on their mobile devices, rather than on the world around them.

Sony’s statement was intended to promote its new line of smart products that remove the need for a phone, such as a Bluetooth earpiece that acts as a personal assistant.

Can virtual reality scale?

If last year’s congress was all about smartwatches, this year the subject has switched to virtual reality (VR). Every brand wants to be part of the nascent market and prove that their solution will be the one that ensures this technology finally takes off.

The importance of VR was underlined by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s surprise appearance at Samsung’s press event. He predicted VR will be “the most social platform” and, in a bid to prove how seriously Facebook takes VR, revealed it has created a new ‘social VR’ team that will focus entirely on how the technology can help people connect.

LG brought on an executive from Google Street View to talk about how using LG’s 360-degree camera and VR headset can help enhance the mapping experience. HTC, meanwhile, has collaborated with gaming company Valve on its Vive VR headset.

VR
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg claimed “VR is the next major platform” during an interview at Mobile World Congress

The excitement around VR comes from its possibilities across a range of industries. Brands in sectors from gaming to travel and automotives are interested in how the technology can boost their appeal and build engagement with consumers.

“Brands are creating a lot of hype around VR, and many marketers would undoubtedly be interested in piloting the technology as it has a real ‘wow’ effect,” says Thomas Husson, principal marketing and strategy analyst at Forrester.

Despite the buzz, it could be a while before the technology hits the mass market. “Marketers care about reach, so scaling VR will take time,” he says.

‘The biggest threat to online advertising’

Mobile ad blocking was a huge talking point this year following Three’s decision to allow customers in the UK and Italy to block adverts. Roi Carthy, CMO at Shine, the company providing the ad blocking technology to Three, described his firm as “the single biggest threat in the history of online advertising”.

Carthy called Three’s decision “a game changer”.

“Everyone who uses a mobile phone is being abused by ad tech, which uses military-grade tracking and profiling”

Roi Carthy, CMO at Shine.

This argument was challenged by Google’s head of media and platforms Benjamin Faes, who said online advertising is vital to the ongoing existence of the “free internet”. However, he acknowledged the need for industry-standard formats and to reduce the load-time of mobile ads. “The experience of loading some pages is really annoying on mobile. The ad needs to be as quick as the content,” he said.

Nestlé’s global head of digital Pete Blackshaw argued that the industry would overcome mobile ad blocking in the same way that advertisers improved their offer following the rise of pop-up blockers on desktop over 10 years ago. He suggested, though, that brands needed to develop a deeper understanding of consumer attitudes towards advertising.

“These debates flare up every five years or so and we always seem surprised,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for more continuous, consumer-centred learnings.”

Additional reporting by Leonie Roderick.