Wrestling with tech talk

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Psst, how'd you like a 5MP SLR? Or maybe a 42-inch LCD HDTV?

Technical terminology lurks down every consumer electronics aisle these days. And as consumer electronic products have become more complex, so have the methods used to promote and sell them. Ads and marketing materials are filled with terms that several years ago were rarely uttered outside of the engineering department.

There's a reason. As digital cameras, flat-panel TVs, MP3 players and mobile phones flood the shelves of Wal-Mart and other retailers, they all become a big blur to shoppers. That forces marketers to compete not just on price, but on technical features to seek an advantage.

"Branding at its simplest is the opposite of commodity," said Thomas Ordahl, interactive practice director at Siegel & Gale. "When all the other companies are in a commodity environment fighting it out on price, there is opportunity to elevate your brand."

price wars

While price wars are old hat for cola companies and fast-food restaurants, consumer electronics are newer to the game. The danger, as those package-goods companies well know, is a never-ending battle of one-upmanship and price-cutting. "Engineering-driven companies build the biggest most complicated thing they can then send it over the wall to marketing," said Nick Wreden, author of "FusionBranding."

The challenge is how to communicate bewildering tech terms to consumers who may not be tech-savvy. Among the tools marketers employ are public relations, word of mouth, Web sites and even educational programs.

thirst for info

"We've found there's such a thirst for information at retail," said Nancy Carr, Kodak's director of worldwide advertising. Kodak uses people known in the consumer-electronics industry as "detailers." Traditional detailers perform retail maintenance, putting new batteries in the products on display or replacing paper in printers. Kodak also uses them to educate; its detailers spend several days at retail outlets training salespeople and doing demonstrations for customers.

Consumer confusion can also be a good thing-for retailers. "Best Buy likes it when things are more complicated because we think that's where we can deliver what the customer really needs"-a navigator to help them understand the terminology, said a Best Buy spokeswoman.

It wasn't always that way. Only 18 months ago, Best Buy's advertising slogan was "Turn on the Fun," with messages geared to tech lovers and early adopters. Its newspaper inserts were filled with pages of product shots and feature lists. But as more newbie and middle-of-the-road buyers entered its stores, Best Buy realized it had a much wider range of customers to communicate with. Now its tagline is "Thousands of Possibilities. Get Yours." Instead of selling technology, it now sells "solutions and the experience," the spokeswoman said

Using tech talk is not a bad idea entirely. For young people who grew up "logged on," words like gigabytes and spam are as familiar as 8-track tapes and microwaves were to Baby Boomers. Consumer-electronics marketers realize that early buzz from uber-consumers like teens and tech-savvy consumers can mean the difference between product success and failure.

strong branding

With so many complex messages out there, strong branding can make the difference. Apple's iPod, a runaway success in both innovation and marketing, may have ventured out of the computer space, but it followed the long-held Apple brand attributes of innovation and stylish design. Kodak entered the digital camera market late but became No. 2 in U.S. market share by sticking to its original brand promise to capture moments.

Claude Singer, senior VP at Siegel & Gale, said there are several strategies a technology company can use to avoid its products becoming commodities. It can make the technology easy to access and use, a strategy seen in Dell's process of customizing computers. It can innovate features or combinations of features like some mobile-phone manufacturers now do by adding cameras or gaming. Or it can make the connection between people's emotions and the technology like Apple does with iPod.

"Consumers look at ads and catalogues and see an amazing array of gadgetry and features and technology," he said. "They can either be helped by companies [to make a purchase] or just dazzled by all the terminology."

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