CMOs Explain Why They're Flocking to Vegas for CES

From Tech Partnerships to Predicting Behavior Changes, Show Points to Future of Marketing

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The merger of technology and marketing is well underway, part of the reason thousands of marketers and agency execs have over the past few years been descending in ever-greater numbers on the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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In a keynote panel at CES, MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan called on a diverse group of marketers from AT&T, Walmart Stores, Facebook, GE, Hyundai and Unilever to explain the phenomenon. In short, the marketers need to understand the technology and the human activities it enables, such as how consumers connect with each other and with brands. "Why are so many marketers at CES? The real question is why all of them aren't at CES," Mr. Kassan said. He's running, in cooperation with CES, a CMO Club at this year's show.

For the non-technology marketer, it's about keeping up with and embracing fast-paced technological change. It's also about cultivating the tech partnerships that mass marketers increasingly need. "We simply need to know how consumers engage with media and engage with brands," said Keith Weed, global CMO of Unilever, whose team is also holding meetings with Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, as well as its Digital Advisory Board on Thursday.

Tech isn't the only thing changing. Human behavior is as well, as devices allow consumers to communicate and share on a massive scale, as well as interact with retailers and brands.

"I'm a marketer and that makes me a behavioralist," said GE CMO Beth Comstock. "How is tech changing the behavior?"

Walmart is a longtime attendee of CES, if nothing else because it is a major buyer and seller of electronics to consumers. But now it's coming to the show with a wider agenda. As the devices get more powerful and social, retailers have to respond. "Everyone is getting smarter; customers won't tolerate a store that isn't moving as fast as they are," said Stephen Quinn, CMO of Walmart .

It goes without saying that mobile would transform retail, but Walmart saw it start to happen years before smartphones in the voice calls and texts sent in the aisles. "A lot of the behaviors around this have existed forever," Mr. Quinn said. "When the cellphones appeared a couple years ago we'd see guys in the store saying, 'Do you mean the red one or the blue one?'"

The behaviors are changing as the devices enable it. As they're connected to the web, they're getting re-wired for social. "We think we're at the early stages of what's happening with devices," said Carolyn Everson, VP of global marketing at Facebook. "The entire web is being rebuilt around people. People like to have their friends around them when they make decisions. You are going to see this in TVs -- instead of thumbing through thousands of channels, your friends will help bring content to you."

In cars, technology has become a marketing differentiator only when voice technology became good enough to enable it. "It's a delicate balance; it has to be two hands on the wheel, eyes on the road," said Steve Shannon, VP-marketing for Hyundai America. "A radio ad salesman in Detroit told me 20 years ago a car is just a radio on wheels. Now it's a search engine on wheels."

All of those devices, of course, are connected to a network struggling to adapt to new uses. "When you step back and look at the trends, every single device here is connected on a fast mobile network, and the devices in our pockets are supercomputers," said AT&T CMO David Christopher.

All of those net-connected devices are generating troves of data that now inform how marketers interact with consumers. Walmart , for example, uses historical patterns in the data to predict sales and make stores smarter.

"We've been through enough hurricanes that our system already knows and starts shipping water, batteries, generators and blueberry Pop Tarts," Mr. Quinn said. "The system doesn't know why, but in the last 10 hurricanes blueberry Pop Tarts turned out to be key to the recovery effort."

With data come matters of ownership and privacy, and marketers on the panel said that technologists alone won't be the ones to solve them. "Who owns the data and what's the value of the data," said Ms. Comstock. "Who is going to make sense of this if not us?"

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