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Tech branding: Not “smart” enough

Posted by: Jeff Mancini on January 19, 2011

There were plenty of goggles to wear at CES this year, but through a brand lens, things were fairly blurry. My colleagues and I were constantly reminding each other of where we were, as one brand environment flowed into the next. It wasn’t just the design that threw us for a loop; it was the 3D, the “other” ipads, and the “smart” — the "smart" everything. Smart phones led to smart homes, which contain smart appliances, including smart TVs, showing smart ads of smart cars. This begs the question: If everyone is smart, then, well, who is really?

What is smart?

According to Wikipedia, “Smart TV is also sometimes referred to as ‘Connected TV,’ (not to be confused with Internet TV, Web TV or LG Electronics's upcoming "SMART TV" branded NetCast Entertainment Access devices).”

Confused? So are many consumers. While true technology enthusiasts know the difference between an ecosystem, a platform, and a device, the average consumer does not. The word “smart,” when used with such excess and frequency, just reads like white noise to their ears.

To make matters worse, the word is actually used in different contexts by various brands. For example, industrial giants like GE and tech innovators like IBM use “smart” to talk about power networks with two-way digital communication — the smart grid.  Meanwhile, “smart” also refers to a platform for applications to run on, in the case of the mobile phone, and now the television market. Then, for other companies, like Samsung, which refer to its TVs as “smart,” it is a device branding technique. Finally, even GE got on the bandwagon with a “smart dispense” system, using the word for ingredient branding for a new appliance line.

Two approaches to “smart”
GE was one brand that  did a great job of branding its technology story both at CES and in its marketing communications, with a minimal use of the word “smart.” There is a nice overall connection to the ecomagination brand platform with some strong names like Nucleus and Brillion — components of its cost-tracking energy platform for the home. While it references the “smart” grid, a strategic focus for its product development strategy, the word smart does not become a core component of its branding strategy. Both Nucleus and Brillion recall intelligent technology and a larger initiative to make homes more connected and efficient. A few instances of “smart” sneak in when referencing a third-party smart meter and, of course, smart phone applications.

Panasonic, which has a very similar brand platform — ideas for life/eco ideas — also makes a meaningful case for its technology. And yet, a quick google search for Panasonic + smart will pull up a frightful case of “smart” branding gone wild.

Here’s a short list of Panasonic products from just three search results pages: Smart phone, Smart card, Smart Card Reader, Smart Board, Smart Networking (Viera), Smart Adapter, Smart Battery Charger, iPro SmartHD Video Server, Smart Movie Software, Smart Home, Smart Grid, Smart Lamp, Smart Air (conditioner), Smart Bed, and, of course, a Smart TV.

So, to all brand marketers out there reading this, please consider the points above. There is a limit to how much we can take of one word, and this dog has already had his day. Maybe those of you reading now have a suggestion or two to post in the comments section below. Perhaps, together, we can make technology branding a little less "smart.”

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