Geek or chic? It’s a technical issue

What is it about consumer technology companies that makes them desperate to be your lifestyle mentor and friend? In Nike, lifestyle might seem an utterly appropriate positioning – encapsulating, with ‘Just do it’, aspirational empowerment based on proven sporting success; whereas in technology companies, its adoption tends to rate from stultifyingly banal to toe-curlingly pretentious.

We’ve seen it in Samsung’s ‘Everyone’s Invited’, Sony’s most recent European campaign tag, ‘You make it a Sony’. Now, perhaps most incongruously, Philips (‘Let’s make things better’) is to unveil a new incarnation of itself as a lifestyle brand. Incongruously because, if ever a company had a deserved reputation for fruitful innovation dissipated by awful marketing, it is Philips.

Of course, it’s easy to scoff. While there may be a ready market for the likes of digital cameras and LCD televisions, intelligent comparison between products is often difficult and requires considerable research on the part of consumers. This opacity generally extends to the perception of the companies that make the products. The intensive skilling and bureaucratic organisation required for the development and production of hi-tech consumer goods is not exactly promising terrain for a consumer-friendly culture. Add to that a frequently unwieldy product range (the Philips brand, for instance, appears on everything from light bulbs to DVD players and medical systems) and the task of forging an attractive brand proposition becomes Herculean.

Only very rarely have technology-based companies managed to throw off their unwanted persona of remote geekiness. Mostly, it could be argued, this has been through product happenstance rather than deliberate corporate image-building. Sony certainly achieved the lifestyle touch with its iconic Walkman in the Eighties. It did it again with PlayStation and, after a fairly unpromising start, is perhaps poised for a breakthrough with mobile phones (after the tie-up with Ericsson).

But the exception which proves the rule in the sector is Apple. Here, perhaps tellingly driven by an individual entrepreneurial vision right from the beginning, is a company with lifestyle stamped all over it as convincingly as Marin bikes, BMW cars or Rolex watches. But it has been a flawed vision compromised precisely by an inability to compromise at the right time. The Macintosh computer, technically and ergonomically far ahead of its competition, famously lost out to inferior Microsoft-based products through an inability to license its technology to other hardware and software producers. The advent of the iPod digital music player offers an opportunity to break out of the niche positioning to which Apple has since been confined. Once again, it has produced something that captures the public imagination by simplifying, in a pleasing way, a complex piece of technology. It remains to be seen whether, once again, it will learn the lesson about licensing the hard way.

The moral, perhaps, is that it is very difficult to get the balance right if you are a consumer technology company. Consumer insight into the packaging of technology is certainly at a premium. But it may be that those with a marketing bias in their corporate genes are at an inherent disadvantage to the more machine-like supply-side qualities of a Matsushita or Microsoft. Either way, a natty lifestyle tag is unlikely to make much difference.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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