Mobile World Congress: Key marketing takeaways

Marketing Week presents its round-up of the biggest marketing stories from Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this week (2-5 March).

Virtual reality headsets were among the launch products on show at Mobile World Congress this week
Virtual reality headsets were among the launch products on show at Mobile World Congress this week

More touchpoints, less clarity

Walking around the giant Fira Gran Via convention centre in Barcelona, one would be forgiven for thinking that all the various technology suppliers on show had gone to the same branding school. Interchangeable and rather meaningless slogans leapt out from the multitude of stands on display, with ‘Tomorrow never waits’ (ZTE) and ‘Next is now’ (Samsung) among this writer’s personal favourites.

In reality relatively little new technology was actually unveiled at this year’s MWC. Samsung’s launch of wireless phone charging certainly caused a stir and its partnership with Ikea, which will build wireless charging pads into its furniture, demonstrates the possibilities for non-technology brands that are astute enough to adapt their business models around consumers’ growing technology needs.

New smartwatches were on show everywhere, as were virtual reality headsets, but there remains a sense that until consumer behaviour catches up to the technology, wearables will remain in the realm of funky gadgetry, rather than central platforms in consumers’ lives. Apple’s scheduled announcement about the Apple Watch on Monday (9 March) could begin to change all that, but it will probably also dwarf much of what came before it at MWC.

Unilever’s vice-president of media for Europe and the Americas Sarah Mansfield spoke this week about the importance of pursuing a “media neutral” strategy that does not chase the latest technology but rather focuses on quality content and consumer experiences, regardless of platform.

AOL’s head of international Graham Moysey also claimed that while wearables and the internet of things will allow brands to become “more available” through heightened personalisation and location-based services, marketers must “always look through the lens of the consumer”. AOL, which owns the Huffington Post and several ad-serving businesses, is “programming content to travel with the user,” he said.

Unlocking brands’ mobile spend

There were mixed feelings about location-based marketing at MWC, with marketers expressing little enthusiasm for beacon technology on the one hand, and telecom operators hailing the possibilities of their own networks on the other.

Daniel Rosen, Telefonica’s global head of advertising, positioned his company as an antidote to ad networks that had served brands poorly in the past, suggesting that its wealth of first party data could facilitate more contextually relevant mobile campaigns. Last year Telefonica became the first telecoms firm to set up a mobile ad exchange through a joint venture with Blackstone’s GSO Capital Partners called Axonix.

“If you listen to people here [at MWC], it’s clear there’s a problem in the industry around location fraud, where brands think they’re buying customers in a particular location, but actually they’re not,” said Rosen. “As Telefonica I think we’re fairly uniquely positioned to solve that problem because we have that authenticated data.”

He added that while mobile advertising spend still lags far behind mobile usage, improvements in technology and an increasing evidence base for its efficacy will soon “unlock the mobile ad dollars”. Rosen said Telefonica is testing a range of new mobile ad formats including ‘sponsored data’ trials that allow brands to provide consumers with free data when they show engagement with a particular campaign.

On the publisher side, Forbes Media’s chief revenue officer Mark Howard revealed that while mobile accounts for over 40% of the US business magazine’s readership, it currently contributes less than 10% of advertising revenue. Forbes is investing significantly in the mobile version of its native advertising platform, BrandVoice, in order to grow this share.

“The intimacy of consuming [native ad] content on a mobile device almost places a greater value on that reader and on that page view than it does on desktop,” said Howard.

Navigating mobile payments

Mobile payment technology should in theory benefit all brands by making it easier for consumers to make purchases and by widening the scope for mobile loyalty and reward schemes. In practice the space is fast becoming a dizzyingly complex world of different payment infrastructures that risks turning merchants and shoppers alike off the whole concept.

Samsung’s launch of Samsung Pay at MWC saw it challenge the role of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology currently used by the likes of Apple Pay and Google Wallet in favour of proprietary technology called Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) that connects with existing card-swipe readers. Samsung Pay works on NFC too, but the implication is that merchants don’t necessarily have to upgrade their systems if they want to offer mobile payments.

Google, meanwhile, confirmed plans for Android Pay at MWC, which will act as an “API layer” to allow brands to build their own secure payment offering for use in both physical stores and via apps. This will not replace other mobile payment services, though, but rather sit alongside Google Wallet and other Android-based facilities like Samsung Pay. Confused? Join the queue.

Design still dominates

Software was expected to trump hardware at this year’s MWC, with new mobile functionalities of greater interest to analysts than standardised touchscreen designs. As it transpired, the bigger stories surrounded the look and feel of new products as a variety of tech giants sought to nail down their credentials as aspirational lifestyle brands.

Of course there was media interest in Samsung’s newest operating features like wireless charging and Samsung Pay. But most of the mainstream coverage of the Samsung S6 and S6 edge focused on the brand’s new premium design that eschews its former use of plastic in favour of sleek glass and metal, as well as curved screen edges on the S6 edge. In its ongoing attempts to drive brand affinity at the expense of Apple, Samsung put this new design approach at the heart of its MWC promotional activities.

In the smartwatch arena, meanwhile, Huawei and LG both grabbed the headlines for launching products that hide their internet connectivity behind traditional high-end watch designs. As the wearables market expands, the ability to convince consumers that products are fashionable and socially acceptable will be a key battleground.

Even back-end technology providers are keen to offer a more presentable face to the public as their opportunities to diversify expand. Microchip manufacturer MediaTek exhibited new applications for its technology at MWC, including a pair of connected children’s shoes that are set to go on sale in China later this year to allow parents to keep track of their kids.

The company is planning a major investment in social media in order to expand its communications, said director of branding Patrik Persson, who argued that as technology proliferates, all brands will become more visible to the wider world.

“It’s no longer about being business-to-business or business-to-consumer,” he said. “It’s about being business-to-people.”

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