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business models, strategies and technologies

Invisibility and technology value

Technology is often embedded and invisible – so how do we understand and appreciate its value?

One of the commercial difficulties with the proliferation of technology and digital embedding is that it’s often difficult to see or appreciate what’s going on or why it’s good. Techy stuff either works or it doesn’t, and value of digital interactions is difficult to make tangible – especially in products and services that provide comfort, safety, a sense of luxury or a diffusely positive “user experience”.

From tech to understanding

The value of technology increases if we understand it and what it does for us. So how do we move from dumb, commoditised tech to useful/appreciated capability?

One good arena for study iies in cars – which have been transmogrified from fairly simple mechanical entities to ad libitum collections of complex electronic gizmos. There’s greater flexibility thanks to the more advanced, automated manufacturing setups, and there are more drool-worthy items on the increasingly long lists of optional equipment, cockpit technologies and style-glam features. This often leaves the manufacturers with a marketing challenge and a credibility problem – how can such fancy-but-invisible features end up costing so much more? Are they worth it? Is “snob effect” the only sales driver available?

Mercedes recently provided a good answer and a textbook example of promoting technology transparency by allowing the father-and-son “We cut things open so you don’t have to” team from What’s Inside? to slice open and rip apart a Mercedes S-Class seat with all the luxury bells and whistles. Suddenly all the massage units, heating coils, cooling fans, sensors, servomotors, inflatable air pockets, electric control units, airbags, etc. were revealed for appreciation.

My reservations about whether it was worth it were promptly kiboshed – the humble bum-percher car seat had become an immensely capable technological installation, and it was totally obvious how much Mercedes R&D and engineering had gone into these various esoteric functionalities. The engineering had been deconstructed and the value/capabilities were clear. Sign me up.

Humble hardware or killer capability?

Are we buying hardware or capability? The weight has long been on the selling side, with engineers focusing on specifications and hardware. The difference perhaps becomes a tad clearer in corporate technology marketing, in which we’re selling a company’s overall capabilities, expertise and know-how rather than the capabilities of an individual product or feature.

I recently happened on a good example of this in one of the big US manufacturers of HVAC-R systems – Trane. They put big efforts into highlighting their test facilities in Tyler, Texas and Epinal, France to demonstrate a whole realm of expertise and capabilities above and beyond the hardware. These facilities also give Trane and its customers some strong visual metaphors for what their technologies can provide, embedded in easily memorable photos.

Old-school working models, new-school digital depictions

Bland assertions about a company’s technological prowess and engineering skills aren’t enough any more. An established company’s position is probably vulnerable to the flesh-eating dis***tion bug, and new generations of demanding, digitally literate citizens of the world are (allegedly) more sceptical and less loyal. Authenticity is often a more cost-effective communication strategy than traditional marketing blurb.

There seem to be big opportunities for effective ways of putting these “capabilities” messages across. There could be a resurgence of old-school working models, especially if this enables companies to tap into the resources and enthusiasm of the maker movement and their ilk. There could be a flourishing of “intelligent” graphics and animations, free of the old-school clichés.

Digital data about virtually all manufacturing activities and processes (and much else) should also provide a fertile substrate for newly considered digital/3D narratives and virtual reality depictions of what a company does, what it provides and how customers benefit. Just add imagination. And think from the customer’s viewpoint – not the manufacturer’s.