New devices and gadgets are being introduced at a frantic pace. A new pedometer is introduced one week, a curved-screen smartwatch the next, followed by a new home automation gateway. These and other new devices represent an interesting opportunity for consumers to get more out of their lives, but what do they represent for brand marketers? Nike and Barnes & Noble both fell into the trap of thinking that these devices required them to become manufacturers, creating the Nike Fuel Band and Barnes & Noble Nook as a hedge against a world in which their categories would someday be dominated by a single, all-powerful device.
It turns out that neither company needed to go that far in service of their customer-relationship goals. The Nook is crumbling so badly that Barnes & Noble just announced it would split Nook off as a separate company to control the damage. And the Fuel Band is giving way to whatever Fuel-based service Nike will put in Apple's upcoming iWatch. It's not because people no longer want the benefits those devices provide. Instead, it's because the rate of device innovation and introduction is accelerating so quickly that these gadgets are being replaced by more sophisticated -- and in some cases, multifunction -- devices more quickly than a brand marketer can keep up.
Take, for example, the case of the e-reader. Sony introduced the first modern, eInk-based e-reader in 2006, followed by Amazon's Kindle in 2007. By late 2008, the U.S. install base for the entire category was less than a million units, a number that would eclipse 25 million in just four years' time. So it would seem to validate Barnes & Noble's 2009 decision to join the fray and seemingly have a say in the future of its industry.
But as they say, the past is not always an accurate predictor of the future, especially when digital disruption is involved. Because something had changed. That something was that consumers had entered what is now a new cycle of rapid adoption and abandonment of new gadget categories. This is sharply illustrated in the e-reader case, where our forecast suggests only 7 million e-reader users left in the U.S. by year-end 2017.
We call this the rise and fall of digital devices in upcoming Forrester research. Just as our consumer data has shown that people are now willing to adopt new devices and new digital experiences more rapidly than ever before, we now see clearly that consumers are equally willing to abandon those devices and experiences in search of the next thing they will strap to their wrists, install in their homes or put on their phones.
This is not because consumers are fickle. It is because someone else has done a better job in delivering the value consumers want, usually in a more convenient and often less-expensive package. Brand marketers, by their very nature, will not be those companies capable of delivering those better device experiences and will not be able to keep up.
And why should they? Because as brand marketers, the future will not belong to whoever makes the device, but what brands the device invites the consumer to contemplate and interact with. Under Armour, a Nike competitor, bought MapMyFitness, the company behind many top fitness tracking apps that work with a variety of fitness devices as well as mobile phones. This allows Under Armour to avoid the expense of building, marketing, and maintaining a device while putting the brand front and center in whatever devices the consumer eventually buys. In essence, Nike Fuel, the loyalty points system, does this as well: You can earn Fuel in many ways, and the Fuel Band just happened to be one of them. But even once the band is gone, Fuel will live on, in your Android Wear Watch or your Apple iWatch or your Apple Beats motion-tracking headphones. Lesson learned for Nike.
What's a brand marketer to learn from this? Yes, make sure you have a digital experience that can reach into whatever hot device rises and eventually falls back again. But these rapidly churning devices also suggest an interesting way to think of your participation in the device's rise and fall. Many of these devices -- from health monitors to electronic door locks to even personal robots and drones -- will capture significant media attention and generate tremendous customer interest for a short period of time.
A brand marketer is best served by thinking of these devices in the same way they imagine a sporting event like the World Cup. There will be significant advance media attention, tremendous interaction on social media during the launch and shortly thereafter, and a period of afterglow during which people will recall fondly their favorite moments (or features, in the case of devices). Marketers already know how to build campaigns in support of these kinds of events. Exploiting device launches will be remarkably familiar territory once they see it this way. There can be branded accessories, mobile apps, and Facebook games, all of which have the goal of capturing the brief flash of attention the new device will get -- while extending the relationship the brand has with its customers into whatever device they will consider next.