CES 2020: Smart consumer products take centre stage

CES never fails to disappoint, whether we expect a bold and inspiring reminder of the innovative world that we inhabit or a provocative preview of the magical technology that awaits us. With the curtains now firmly drawn on this year’s event and with our tired limbs and strained eyes resting comfortably, it is time to reflect on the week that was, decoupling hype from reality, isolating technology that’s fun from technology that solves problems, and separating innovations that might fuel a new business model from those that have the potential to disrupt an entire industry.

For consumer products (CP) companies, these considerations have a heightened importance. Following decades of solid and dependable growth, the CP industry has faced several years of declining revenue and profits. With increasing pressure from digital insurgents, shifting consumer tastes, and the rising cost of assets, CP companies must look to emerging technology as an opportunity to reconnect with consumers, increase brand relevance and reclaim lost identity.

CES 2020 showcased a number of technologies that are or will soon have a marked impact on how CP companies deliver value to the market. Not least was the ardent focus on smart products. If the world’s largest electronics show demonstrated anything this year, it was that every conceivable consumer item can become ‘smart’. Highlights of this year’s show included a smart lock (Lockly Vision) that can be opened with either voice commands or a fingerprint sensor, a smart toothbrush (Colgate Plaqless Pro) that tells you when your mouth is clean, a smart watch (GoBe3) that can automatically track calorie intake (i.e., the number of calories your body actually absorbs) and can detect your stress levels based on real-time skin readings, and smart insoles (Nurvv Run) that use a combination of 32 built-in sensors to tell you how far you have travelled, your cadence, balance, stride and more.

Smart products and services

Most traditional CP companies are beginning to respond to the growing trend towards smart products. With some analysts projecting as many as 42bn connected devices or ‘things’ by 2025 (IDC), big CP companies are increasingly looking like tech companies as they seek opportunities to integrate cutting-edge technologies into everyday products and services to widen brand differentiation and help consumers improve the way they live their lives.

For Procter and Gamble (P&G) this has included, among others, the Opte Precision Skincare System which leverages camera optics, proprietary algorithms and advanced printing technology to identify hyperpigmentation on the skin and apply a corrective serum in a precise manner. For the toy industry, products like Mattel’s Fisher-Price Smart Learning Home and Rocktopus use a combination of smart sensors and artificial intelligence to promote fun learning and interactive play, while beverage giant PepsiCo recently announced a new mobile-enabled Hydration Platform, which creates a connected ecosystem for people to stay hydrated on the go.

While many of the products CP brands sell are the epitome of “unsexy”, the creative shift towards smart products and services provides these same products with an entirely new and exciting platform. As we look to the immediate future, expect to see a large number of traditional CP brands leveraging smart technology to develop more intimate connections with consumers, to drive new service-oriented revenue streams, to provide consumers with more transparency into the products they buy, and to create improved efficiency and precision across the end-to-end supply chain.

Connected ecosystem

CES 2020 also revealed the extent to which tomorrow’s smart products will form part of a more integrated, connected ecosystem. What will make smart products even smarter in the future will be their ability to communicate with other products and devices occupying the same ecosystem. Think of a smart fridge advising you on the ideal snack based on a combination of real-time biometric data and smart packaging, or a smart toy delivering a highly interactive learning experience by connecting to a smart screen and/or a voice-activated device.   

CES highlighted a number of devices that will help to bring smart products even closer together. Perhaps the most exciting of these came from Samsung’s Ballie, a tennis ball-shaped robot, that moves around the home, directing other smart devices and making real-time decisions. For instance, if a glass falls from the counter and shatters on the floor, leveraging its built-in audio and image recognition software, Ballie sends a smart vacuum to clean up the mess without prompting from the owner. As CP brands explore opportunities to further enhance their products for tomorrow’s highly competitive marketplace, it will be critical to assess how these products are positioned within the wider IoT ecosystem of a connected home, connected car or connected workplace.

Voice recognition

Of equal importance will be the CP brand’s ability to leverage voice technology as the emerging new consumer interface. It seemed that every major innovation showcased at CES 2020 leveraged some form of conversational AI or voice recognition capability, from motorcycle helmets, to beds, washing machines, toilets, e-bikes, electric toothbrushes, and shower heads. According to Juniper Research, voice assistants will find a home in more than eight billion consumer products by 2023.

CP brands will need to assess how everyday products and services can be enhanced through voice-based interfaces either to improve ease of use or to better personalise the overall experience. While Amazon, through its Alexa and Echo-enabled devices, currently provides the most viable platform for achieving this, the category is poised to get a lot trickier as Google, Samsung and Microsoft all look to up their game in the voice tech space.

With the continued growth and adoption of voice assistants and smart speakers, CP companies must test voice-first technology for themselves and begin to learn what works for their products and what doesn’t. This starts with a deep, emphatic understanding of their target consumers and how voice experiences can help remove unnecessary angst and provide desired improvements to their daily lives.  

The coming year will likely witness a number of innovative new products and services evolving from the traditional CP space as the category looks to re-establish its identity, reconnect with consumers, and fulfil its commitment to sustainability. While many of the products showcased at CES may never hit the market, or at least not any time soon, they do serve to provide us with a very useful glimpse into what may be emerging on the horizon. If this year’s event is anything to go by, there will be no shortage of disruptive technology reshaping and redefining the CP industry over the next few years.