Is CES today more about branding than users and products?

As CES approaches, exhibitors seem to be focusing on developing brands more than showcasing products.

Trade shows are interesting beasts. Typically, they're all about a specific industry, of little interest to people outside that industry. Some tradeshows manage to transcend being niche events where no one outside of a specific profession has an interest in attending. Those tradeshows tend to capture at least some segment of the public consciousness.

This week will see the 2011 rendition of one of those types of tradeshows: CES.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has long been a staple event in the tech industry for many years. It has a broad focus that can accommodate all manner of technologies – TVs, mobile phones, media players, Internet-enabled solutions and services, cars with built-in technology features, robotic devices, new computing platforms, cameras, home automation options, games and gaming consoles, gadgets that attach to your key ring. Anything is fair game at CES.

Given that the word consumer is in the show's name, it isn't a surprise that CES is open to the general public and that thousands of people flock to Las Vegas every year to witness the new products and potentially sci-fi like future that they represent (its worth noting that on average half the products shown at CES don't actually reach consumers – but that doesn't take away the magical possibilities of the ones that might make it).

Over the years, things have changed a bit – for tradeshows in general and CES in particular. Much as the Internet has evolved from a rag tag group of technologies and pioneering early adopters into an everyday piece of life that is dominated by branded companies and services, CES has evolved into a chance for marketing pros to launch new brands. Some of these are new companies with new visions, but many are extensions of an existing product line or new ventures by well established companies.

Vizio's simultaneous move into both mobile devices and expanded connected-TV features that I discussed earlier today is a good example. Vizio isn't a new company. The technologies it will be highlighting aren't new. But, the two together form a new brand identity.

This trend isn't specific to CES. Many long-time tradeshows have moved in this branding direction.

It's even hard to say if this is good or bad. Technology trade shows like CES are more like advertising events than a meet up of a select group with a special interest, but they are also more accessible to the world at large. While millions of people can't fly to Vegas to witness CES, a small army of reporters (myself included) can be virtual eyes and ears for the larger world.

Of course, that larger exposure places more pressure on companies that exhibit at CES and similar shows to show up with polished products, presentations, and to build brands around them. Again, though, that allows anyone to get a greater feel for what is coming to market, even if it comes in a more corporate packaging.

The one real downside is that companies place so much emphasis on creating hype for products amid a sea of other companies doing the same thing that some will end up unnoticed. That is one way in which Apple has been very smart and strategic in avoiding CES and other tradeshows (including the iconic MacWorld Expo). Doing so allows Apple to create its own hype and make announcements without so many competing voices. Of course, not every company can nab the media's attention like Apple.

Is this branded focus at CES ultimately good or bad? I honestly can't say. All I can do is show up this week and show you as much as I'm able.

What do you think? Should trade shows like CES be kept smaller and more intimate? Should more companies follow Apple's lead and ignore them? Perhaps most importantly, is there anything you'd really like to see me cover while I'm in Las Vegas? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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