This year’s hot trend in fashion is computers. Whether at SXSW or in the tech and media hubs on the coasts, people are excited about the watches, wristbands and “eyeframes” that double as computers. Not all of these gadgets will succeed and those that do probably will evolve rapidly from today’s versions. But the trend is real—and marketers need to take note. They can expect consumers open to new forms of discovery and deeper relationships with brands, but also who have less tolerance for advertising that’s irrelevant, disruptive or disrespectful of privacy.
Nothing exemplifies the widespread interest in wearable computers better than Pebble, a watch that has its own Internet interface, apps and waiting list of fans eager to buy it. Last year, the founders of Pebble went to the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter with just a vague business plan and raised $10 million from thousands of investors. In less than a year, Pebble started to ship product and, in the past month, has released programming guidelines for outside developers. Not to be outdone by a start-up, Apple, Google, Samsung and LG are all rumored to be working on smartwatches, and Nike has made a big splash with its own wristband that tracks calories burned—the Fuel Band. Probably the most ambitious of all is Google Glass, the smartphone/eyeglass hybrid that projects information directly onto the lens of the wearer. Initial versions for developers have begun to ship already.
All of these devices will take the mobile revolution to a new level. The original iPhone ushered in an era when consumers expect to receive relevant answers any time, anywhere, to any question—even if they haven’t asked it yet. Still, wearable computing adds another layer of complexity. With screens that are always on and always feeding information, there’s even less of a margin for error with irrelevant advertising, and more opportunity for location-specific discovery. There will be new types of data—e.g., biometrics, location, eye movements—that could be incredibly relevant to marketers, but also frightening for consumers already worried about personal privacy. As a result, most marketing opportunities will have to be truly opt-in and transparent in how data will be used—and how that use is actually a service.
Take Google Now, a service that lets users receive pertinent time-sensitive or location-sensitive information without asking for it. It’s currently on phones, but it’s ideally suited for Google Glass. Although Now has high use-value, there’s also a high potential for creepiness, something Baris Guletkin, co-creator of Now, understands: “We take privacy very seriously, and make it very clear what the user will get, and what kind of data we’ll be using, and lots of controls so they can turn things off that they don’t like.” Google is banking on the fact that a lot of people will make that tradeoff in order to get useful information on-the-go. If I’ve just landed in Paris on an overnight flight and I am walking to a meeting, I’m OK with Google knowing what type of food I like if that information is used to suggest boulangeries along my route with highly rated croissants. But not everyone will feel that way.
Current discovery engines, such as Yelp and Foursquare, could probably also make a relatively easy transition to something like Google Glass or evolved versions of a smartwatch. Other marketers, however, will have to create new ways to use personal data and tags within physical objects to provide information that’s pertinent and enhances a real-world experience, not interrupts it. Peter Dahlstrom and David Edelman of McKinsey have written a great article about “on-demand marketing,” They describe a scenario where a headset has an NFC chip that communicates with a smartphone and opens an app that shows the headset in different colors and has related offers. Combined with augmented reality on Google Glass, the possibilities for this type of technology are pretty exciting. Even if Glass doesn’t catch on with the mainstream population, it will likely spur innovation that will trickle down to smartphones.
In addition to discovery, a second transformative role for wearable computers may be in how they turn solitary offline activities into daily social activities, creating a durable bond with the brand.
Nike’s Fuel Band is a great example. Nike has taken the daily workout and turned into a shared activity. The wristband uses a motion detector to calculate the amount of calories a person is burning during the day and tracks it against personal goals. It also connects to an app that shares this information with friends, creating value by turning the fuel points into shared successes and, for some, a competition. Because it’s always on, it creates dozens, even hundreds, of daily touchpoints with the brand.
Fuel fully aligns the brand with staying in shape, a high value for many people, and the core need that its other products satisfy. Eventually, Nike could connect Fuel points to support public causes, which would align the brand with the core values of the “new consumer,” described by sustainable branding agency, BBMG,
“Thirty percent of the U.S. adult population—some 70 million consumers—New Consumers—are values-aspirational, practical purchasers who are constantly looking to align their actions with their ideals; yet tight budgets and time constraints require them to make practical trade-offs every day … To deliver on total value, it’s no longer about pushing products, it’s about creating platforms for ideas and experiences that help people live healthier, greener and better.”
The Fuel Band and competitors like Jawbone are such platforms. They don’t just turn offline activities into online, social ones, they also link the brand to the values of the customer.
The Fuel Band right now is one of the first wearable computers that has been a commercial success, because it enhances existing activities in innovative ways. We’ll soon see whether Glass, Pebble and others have similar levels of success. Regardless, we’ll continue to see new wearable computers down the line, and they will undoubtedly lead to new opportunities for marketers that are impossible to see today.