CES 2021 Preview: Reset Your Expectations

The five key trends that marketers should keep a close eye on

Richard Yao
Jan 7 · 6 min read
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CES 2021 is set to kick off on Monday, and like many recent events, it is going fully online. Instead of the bustling show floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center, this year’s biggest consumer technology event will happen on a digital venue developed by Microsoft. No more getting stuck in awful traffic going between different venues, or waiting in long lines to get into a keynote venue; every content session, including the ones from the Lab, will simply be a few clicks away.

While the CES experience this year will undoubtedly be very different, it may just end up being a necessary reset that could prove beneficial for this long-running conference, which, admittedly, has been running into a rut of “same old, same old” incremental developments in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic brought great disruptions and forced everyone to re-configure the way we live and work, and we expect this upcoming CES to not only reflect the new normal, but also offer some interesting glimpses into how key innovation trends will evolve in a post-COVID world.

In short, it is time to reset your expectations, both in terms of what CES will look like and of the existing narratives on topics like digital health and 5G. Although typical CES buzzwords like AI and 8K TVs will likely still pop up in spades, despite not adding anything new to the discourse, this year’s show may also reveal some helpful hints on where consumer technology and innovation are trending. With less than a week to go, here are some of the key trends that we think all brand marketers should keep a close eye on.

Digital Health in the Spotlight

Over the past few years, digital health has been steadily on the rise as a key innovation area on the CES show floors, as startups in healthcare and adjacent domains push for the consumerization and specialization of digital health devices and services. This year, thanks to the ongoing pandemic, it will be all eyes on digital health for solutions, since every company now has to care for the health and safety of their customers and employees.

Outside the continuous growth of at-home digital health solutions, including new devices with specialized features such as wearables that track blood oxygen levels, we expect to see a strong surge of interests from the public and the non-endemic brands in digital health products to address some of the short-term and long-term issues in pandemic recovery. This may include things like ambient technology for checking body temperatures or vaccination status, or automated robots for disinfection and sterilization. Similarly, we also expect to see more companies making digital health solutions part of their core offerings for a competitive edge.

In addition, the wildfires of 2020 have made air quality a top-of-mind concern for many people. Therefore, we are likely to see more smart air purifiers, humidifiers, and water filtration systems in the smart home space than ever before. As concerns over climate change continue to grow, we could see more mainstream attention on smart home solutions for managing environmental health.

Remote Work Spurring New Growth Areas

Another potential hot trend for this CES is the products and services responding to the accelerated adoption of remote work and the new lifestyle trends it facilitates. The conventional stakeholders, such as productivity tool makers like Microsoft or office supplies brands like Dell, are set to come out with new products that cater to the new, at-home demand of office workers — Dell’s new monitor, for example, will come with a dedicated button for Microsoft Teams — and big companies are expected to share more on how they envision the future of work.

Furthermore, it will be fascinating to see whether products and services designed for remote workers would pop up in other industries, such as fashion, food, and travel, so as to capitalize on this shift away from the office and future-proof their businesses. The shift to a future of hybrid work will likely spur new growth areas for brands of all vectors to explore, and how many of them show up at this CES to kickstart the conversation will be an interesting thing to watch.

5G In Search of a New Narrative

5G has officially arrived at the end of 2020 with the launch of 5G-ready iPhones, and we expect 5G to retain its buzzword status this year. (After all, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg is headlining this year’s kickoff keynote.) Yet, despite all the previous years spent on building its hype, there has not been any area of discernible improvement that we can point to as a testimony of 5G’s necessity for average consumers. Granted, we are still in the early stages of 5G rollout, and consumer-facing, 5G-enabled applications will likely see a spike in the following years as adoption grows. That being said, it has become quite apparent that “faster mobile internet speeds” alone is not enough to upsell 5G to mainstream mobile users.

Instead, what the telecom industry needs right now is a new narrative for selling 5G, which means moving the conversation beyond mobile and into exciting areas such as wearables and smart home. Many connected devices to be unveiled at this CES will likely be 5G-ready to take advantage of the high energy efficiency of 5G connectivity. In addition, some auto brands will likely show off 5G-ready connected vehicles to make good use of the low latency that 5G networks enable.

Wireless carriers may also branch out into the home broadband business by extending 5G plans to replace residential internet services. After all, 5G-based wireless home internet services like WebLink already exist, and T-Mobile is expanding its LTE home internet service to over 130 more cities, so it wouldn’t be that far of a reach to switch on 5G for home internet once the network capability allows. If that were to happen, people who ditch their ISPs for a mobile carrier could lead to more cord-cutting as well, given that most cable packages are bundled with home broadband services. Whichever the case, 5G will hopefully find a new story to tell at this CES, if it were to sustain its hype.

A Car Show with a New Focus

Speaking of cars, CES has gained the reputation of being an auto show in recent years, thanks to carmakers filling venues and stunning crowds with impressive-looking concept cars and drones. This year, things will no doubt be a little different for the auto companies, as a virtual exhibition takes away the wow factor that comes with encountering a futuristic model in person. So instead of attention-grabbing design and huge drones, this year we expect automakers to shift their focus from flashy showmanship and stunty installations to something more grounded, such as vehicle software features and the environmental impact of their electric vehicles.

For example, General Motors is set to headline the Tuesday morning keynote address, where CEO Mary Barra is expected to share GM’s vision for future mobility solutions and transition to all-electric vehicles. In addition, Mercedes is set to unveil an ultra-wide “Hyperscreen” dashboard display next week, which will reportedly utilize AI to enable an enhanced method of controlling entertainment and vehicular functions.

More Discussion on Platform Regulation & Consumer Privacy

Over the past few years, conversations around the intensifying regulatory scrutiny placed on the tech industry and increasing concerns over protecting consumer privacy have been bubbling below the surface and building momentum at previous CES. This year, given the ongoing federal lawsuits against Google and Facebook over allegedly monopolistic practices, as well as the accelerated digitalization across industries, these two topics have the potential to emerge as key points of discussion at this CES — although it is unclear how a virtual CES plans to facilitate the kind of spontaneous exchanges among attendees that would occur at in-person events. Regardless, we expect to hear some debates on these two timely subjects at many of the conference sessions this year.

With an unprecedented CES in front of us, we here at the Lab are ready to bring you the latest and the best from this virtual event. We will be unveiling our 2021 Outlook trend report on Tuesday and hosting content sessions on industry disruptions throughout the week. Be sure to get in touch with our Director of Client Services Ben Hone (ben@ipglab.com) if you’re interested in joining us. We will also be sending out daily CES recaps next week, so be sure to sign up for our newsletter at www.ipglab.com or reach out to Richard Yao (richard@ipglab.com).

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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