CES 2021: Virtual Silence

A muted showing from the all-digital event

Sometimes the hardest decision is to do nothing, rather than adapting something to fit awkwardly or risk falling hopelessly short of expectations. After watching the first day of announcements from CES 2021, I can’t help thinking that a host of companies have felt compelled to forge ahead with keynote presentations simply because that’s what they’ve done in the past.

Admittedly, CES is a major event in the tech calendar and its shift online has forced companies to rethink product announcements and how they use the show. That’s no easy task considering that for decades CES has spearheaded marketing investments for countless companies. There’s the brand association to consider and inevitably, the reality that giving the event a miss in 2021 could have consequences when the show returns in physical form, we hope, in 2022. It’s also inescapable that the value of CES, as with any large trade show, comes from opportunities for meetings and networking rather than the conference track and hours of keynote sessions.

Nonetheless, commitment to CES 2021 remained strong despite the show’s virtual format. The Consumer Electronics Association has done a good job of taking the event online and strived to ensure that the same opportunities exist for companies to get their messages across. The same goes for side events like Pepcom and ShowStoppers.

Based on the first day, though, CES has been tainted by widespread indecision from participants and exhibitors — a paralysis caused by an unprecedented situation, fear of non-involvement, the legacy of what’s been done in the past and possible implications for the future.

The opening press day of CES featured most of the companies that usually fill the conference centre of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas: Intel, LG, Mercedes, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony, TCL and Verizon were all prominent fixtures. However, the lack of actual news was palpable. Numerous — but not all — press conferences offered few, if any, announcements and were more akin to exercises in brand building, with flashy videos, graphics and guest appearances.

Sony featured an “immersive reality” performance from Madison Beer alongside promises of a PlayStation 5 restock and a handful of new titles. Samsung used the opportunity to promote its Galaxy Unpacked event on 14 January, which will be separate to CES, and the talking point from LG’s keynote presentation was a rollable smartphone that it teased by offering a split-second glimpse but no further detail.

This isn’t to criticize the lack of news from these press conferences. Companies face a dilemma over whether to risk announcements getting lost in the noise of CES or use separate, dedicated events such as Samsung’s Unpacked for greater impact. This tension has been exacerbated in 2021 by the shift online. Nonetheless, investing in a high-production presentation and encouraging the world’s media to attend without offering any actual news is potentially counterproductive.

It’s also notable that companies including Amazon, Google and Qualcomm all decided not to take part in CES 2021 despite making sizeable investments in recent years. Looking at the first day of the event, it’s hard not to consider these shrewd decisions.

I suspect many companies decided to treat CES 2021 as a hiatus and to keep the spot warm for subsequent years, and that’s fair enough. My concern is that this isn’t the first time that CES has shown a relative lack of real news from press day, and this has been compounded in 2021.

In normal times, the value of CES lies in the ability to physically showcase products and technologies and maximize marketing, networking and sales opportunities. The event is not a forum for news, but for brand communication and sales meetings. For CCS Insight, its value comes from being able to have meetings and finding little-known technologies and the building blocks of future products on the show floor.

The past 12 months have shown us that technology can address many of the challenges presented by a pandemic and bring people together. CES is a reminder that a large physical gathering that barely allows enough time for the New Year’s headache to clear still has a role that’s much bigger than a launch event or press release. We just need to adjust our expectations for headlines.