Almost anyone who has ever been to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas knows it has a mixed reputation. Sure, it's where tech innovations like high-def TV and the Blu-ray disc debuted. But it can also be a logistical nightmare as 150,000 attendees struggle to discover the latest tech trends while managing a sea of hotels, convention booths, taxis, and parties.
Many of the world's biggest brands come to the event and executives say it's frustrating for them to find the emerging technologies that can make their teams work better. Now, they're using startups to cut the wheat from the chaff. Executives from Unilever and Univision will be guided by partners such as Buzzstarter, a marketing startup based in San Francisco, and 500 Startups, one of the country’s leading accelerators, to discover innovation in mobile and social media.
"We are always keeping our eye out for the next big thing," says Lou Paik, Unilever's shopping marketing director. "Startups are the best partners for this. They are our eyes and ears on the ground."
The practice began a few years back, as execs from Unilever began touring with startup partners. As word spread about this, other companies got into the act to find even more "plugged-in" opinions on tech innovation. In the past, some execs visiting conferences like CES traditionally relied on PR firms to show them around.
Now even CES itself has created sections like Eureka Park, which showcases over 500 emerging companies.
"Brands get to bypass the hype and go straight for solutions relevant to their business," says Alex Gold, cofounder of Buzzstarter, which helps companies access emerging marketing channels. "At the same time, startups get to watch and learn from the masters. Startups get to see in real time what potential customers want."
One of the more critical areas brands are looking for help in is mobile advertising. Take Unilever as an example.
"They are looking to startups as an avenue to get straight to solutions that change the game," Gold says. As a startup founder, he relishes the chance to show executives new tech that is disruptive. "This year at CES there are companies providing all kinds of solutions, like new hardware with bendable screens that give proximity-based brand messaging."
Some of the companies on display provide location-based software that ties directly into user data. That could be useful for food and personal care brands. "We’re touring CES to get a leg up," Paik says.
The idea is, with connected devices like Fitbit, Nike’s FuelBand, and smartwatches at the show, possibilities open up. It may be reasonable for the company to create integrated recipes or calorie trackers. One idea: Smartwatch or Fitbit users can receive recipe information at the right place and time. That could be beneficial for a brand like Unilever’s Country Crock Margarine.
Big brands are also looking to change the way they market themselves. "Unilever is actively looking for technology solutions that give access to new online marketing channels," Paik says. Companies like Unilever use banner advertising or even Twitter and Facebook.
However, by touring CES, big brands find companies like Buzzstarter that go beyond and provide marketing on emerging channels like Quora, Pinterest, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, and publisher and blog networks.
"This past year more than 80% of all marketers said they planned to invest more in emerging channels. Their use is growing fast and many companies are exploring these options," says Gold.
CES gives brands access to options like these and dozens of others. Startups cut through the noise and help the big boys find relevance. According to Gold, "brands are essentially using startups as ‘external innovation teams’ since they’re already in the trenches on a day-to-day basis."