What the tech industry can learn from Detroit

Computer and gadget makers haven't learned to tap into buyers' emotions the way the auto industry has. But there are signs the industry is starting to figure it out.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
7 min read

DETROIT--I've been to dozens and dozens of technology shows. As of this week, I've been to one auto show--and boy, was the difference eye-opening.

I don't read the buff books, those magazines filled with gleaming Lamborghinis. I don't aspire to restore a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air on weekends. To me, a car is a primarily utilitarian tool.

So you might think the spectacle that is the North American International Auto Show here would leave me unmoved. On the contrary, I was impressed. That's chiefly because the auto industry seemed to understand human nature in a way the computing industry, with the exception of Apple, doesn't.

Let me explain.

emerged dramatically from the shadows during its splashy Detroit auto show debut." credit="Stephen Shankland/CNET" alt="Toyota's FT-CH hybrid concept car emerged from the shadows during its debut at a press conference at the Detroit auto show." />

At the show I scurried from one car debut to another--finished products such as the Honda CR-Z and concepts such as the Hyundai Blue-Will, and Volkswagen New Compact Coupe.

All these launches--and there were many more I missed--had something in common: drama. Cars were hidden under covers, behind doors, and underneath stages. Executive speeches reached their crescendos as the new model was unveiled, rolled out, or popped up through a hatch in the stage. Spotlights flooded the stage. Camera flashes flashed. Fog machines fogged. Subwoofers throbbed.

All these theatrics should leave a seasoned reporter unmoved, right? Well, I didn't want to leap out of my seat to buy anything, but I have to say the antics were very effective at focusing attention to the matter at hand. In stark contrast to demos of new development platforms and multicore scalability I've seen at tech events, nobody in the thronging press had any doubt about when to roll the cameras and to shoot the photos.

I'm not saying Dell's problems would be solved if it just unveiled its next PC with some fireworks and unicycling bears. Rather, those auto show highlight moments were emblematic of a more sophisticated understanding of what makes potential customers tick and therefore how to get them excited about buying stuff.

Cars have a more visceral, emotional appeal than a lot of tech products. Humans often see their vehicles as an expression of their own selves--their strength, speed, status, success, or style. I think part of that is human nature--but part of it is the byproduct of decades of effective marketing, too.

Revving the Apple excitement engine
The auto market's approach will only go so far in the tech world. I don't believe people will buy storage arrays or license customer relationship management software because they think it'll make them look more glamorous or attractive to potential mates. But for a lot of the consumer electronics industry, the appeal to emotion could pay off.

So far I'd say Apple is the company that grasps what's possible. It cultivates drama through the mystique of Chief Executive Steve Jobs and the secret product development. It's not unlike the image of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory: a single public face supported by an army of invisible workers who concoct miraculous novelties.

But more to the point, Apple often manages to persuade people that buying their products is making a statement--that the purchaser is sophisticated, discerning, intelligent. Apple's iconic 1984 Superbowl ad is a perfect illustration.

A dance troupe coyly shuffled screens around to gradually reveal VW's New Compact Coupe seen at the Detroit auto show.
A dance troupe coyly shuffled screens around to gradually reveal VW's New Compact Coupe seen at the Detroit auto show. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple's ability to make that sales pitch is eased by the fact that the company doesn't concern itself overmuch with catering to the highest volume markets where profit margins are slim and product differentiation is harder. But still, I see people express an emotional attachment to Apple products that I rarely see with DVD players, mobile phones, video cameras, Windows PCs, and other mainstream electronics products.

When you're buying an application server or a wireless network router, it's generally a pretty utilitarian choice, driven more by spec sheets, benchmark scores, and price-performance trade-offs. But it looks to me as if that method of promoting and selling that sort of product has carried over to market segments that could well grow beyond it.

To some extent, this is happening.

Advanced Micro Devices and Intel are de-emphasizing processor frequencies and trying to tout real-world benefits. Systems like the Hewlett-Packard Envy and Dell Adamo embody their makers' aspirations to build something that people wouldn't be ashamed to have lying around when the dinner guests come. Sony, which still seems to be coasting on brand power built up years ago, has shown signs of grasping a lifestyle sales pitch.

Amazon positions the Kindle as a gateway to everything good about reading, a task made easier by the fact that it isn't freighted with the general-purpose baggage a PC must carry. Yahoo's $100 million "You" campaign emphasizes people, not the value of open application programming interfaces. And I think the Windows "I'm a PC" ads function reasonably well at reassuring Windows users that they're unassuming, regular folk rather than uppity snobs.

Most curious in the lifestyle-vs-features marketing spectrum is the Motorola Droid, a higher-end Android phone. To me, the "Droid Does" ads are on the one hand old-school tech marketing, a boast that its feature list is longer. But then on the other hand, it also strikes me that it's a lifestyle sales pitch geared for those who want to show they're in the tech in-crowd--the kind of person who wants to say he doesn't need any coddling from Apple.

Putting the Focus on a single feature
But still, the visceral, emotional, dramatic sales pitch seems the exception rather than the rule. With most mobile phones, the ringtone says more about the owner than the phone itself. And while shopping for a Webcam, I looked at the side of the box and saw a grid with checkboxes showing which features various models had. The implication: the more checkboxes, the happier you'll be.

Perhaps this has some merit in explaining confusing product lines or upselling customers to higher-end purchases. But in the long run, I doubt it does as much for the company as somehow telling a story that grandma is happy now that she can have a video chat with her grandchild.

Here's an specific example of the difference between a car sale and an electronics sale: the unveiling of the next-generation Ford Focus. This is a small car designed to be practical and affordable, not something that will win a drag race.

The cars Kia planned to announce were literally under wraps--but plenty visible as a teaser of things to come.
The cars Kia planned to announce were literally under wraps--but plenty visible as a teaser of things to come. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Yet the sales pitch during the press conference was still about a prospective customer's image. My translation: "Buying this car shows you're a person of good judgment, someone who recognizes good value but still knows a sharp-looking car."

In case there was any doubt, technical details were subordinate to the single feature Ford wanted us to remember: better fuel economy. Shown on a giant screen that bisected an entire basketball arena, the other features were reduced to dim text while the point about better mileage glowed orange. Executive Chairman Bill Ford himself delivered the message.

Another example: Toyota's FT-CH hybrid concept car, which looked to me like a cross between a Prius and something from the company's Scion line aimed at younger buyers. Toyota's pitch: the car is designed "to capture the high-energy style of the 8-bit generation" of the 1980s, a retro design for those who grew up with the blocky graphics and bright, simple music of Nintendo video games like Super Mario Brothers 3 and Mega Man II.

As the debut moment approached, chirpy music blared and retro graphics flashed, then the car emerged from hiding. Frankly, I found it all silly and had to restrain myself from rolling my eyes. But on further reflection, I decided Toyota deserved credit for trying to find a way to appeal to younger customers by appealing to their proto-nostalgia for a peppy part of their childhood rather than saying, in effect, "This subcompact is optimized for a person of your limited budget."

I'm not sure how easy it will be for the electronics industry to appeal to buyers' gut instincts. Many gadgets have short shelf lives compared to cars and just aren't big enough to project much of any image. A lot of devices really are tools without much capacity to appeal to mainstream passions. About the only emotion connected to today's lower-end, nearly disposable digital cameras is what you find in the photos you see on the screen.

Nevertheless, I think there's room for improvement. The electronics industry is in its infancy in some ways, still lacking the generations of history cars enjoy. Yet electronics can be as empowering as personal transportation in their own way. The social dimension of new devices opens innumerable opportunities for appeals to our gut instincts rather than our spreadsheet analyses.

I expect the transition to happen, and as it does, I'm sure nerdy types such as myself will be annoyed at all the feel-good fluffy vagueness of it all and run back to our lists of speeds and feeds.

But in the big picture, I consider it healthy. It could help in the shift from an era of humans adapting to electronics to one that's the other way around.