Some soothsayers are predicting 2015 will be the Year of Wearable Electronics, with one research firm forecasting double-digit global market growth to $8 billion by 2018. But in the cascade of new wearable products — smart wristwatches with built-in sensors, web-connected glasses with tiny online cameras, wrist-bands that monitor your every move, “e-textile” outerwear with sensors built into the fabric, footwear, headbands, and dozens of others — we’ve barely seen or heard about hearing aids. Even though hearing aids were the original “wearable” consumer electronics products, they are hardly mentioned in discussion of the next great wave of consumer technology. What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s a picture of “marketing myopia,” the phenomenon Theodore Levitt of Harvard Business school famously described as the “buggy whip” problem. Had the buggy-whip manufacturers in the early 1900s understood they were in the transportation business, not the horse-drawn carriage business, they may have had the foresight to apply their expertise to new products that could be used with automobiles and thereby prosper. Instead they all went broke.
Today’s major hearing aid manufacturers aren’t as bad off as those old buggy-whip makers. They are well aware of the need to look to the future and in fact have led the electronics industry in developing connectivity technologies — wireless digital communications and sound processing especially — that will be the foundation of many wearable products. But, with a few notable exceptions, they are failing to communicate effectively the true value of these advances to consumers.
This case of marketing myopia is not a problem of R&D, product development, technology or sales channel as much as it is a communications problem. It starts with how the industry identifies itself — as a provider of “hearing aids.” That’s an accurate descriptor — the products aid people with hearing problems — but it fails miserably as a marketing term. So many negative connotations associated with “hearing aids” are baked into consumers’ consciousness — old age, infirmity, disability, hearing “impairment,” etc. — that the phrase alone drives customers away in droves.
The hearing industry consistently sends the negative message that it’s in the business of addressing hearing disability problems. But the industry also has a far more positive value proposition: it’s in the business of providing all consumers with opportunities to join more easily and seamlessly into the world of digital connectivity and communication. Rather than communicating that it’s in the problem business, the hearing industry should promote the fact that it’s in the opportunity business.
Even though hearing aid manufacturers are well aware of this disconnect, to date the industry has failed to come up with effective ways to engage the millions of young and old consumers who could benefit from their products in an endless variety of ways. The new benefits delivered by the hearing aid manufacturers — opportunities for better communication and comprehension of information in a wireless digital world — have nothing to do with age or disability. But so far no one has come up with a marketing position or concept that encapsulates those opportunities in a way that excites and motivates consumers.
“Wearable electronics,” a phrase that has already caught on, is a perfect, natural fit for the hearing aid industry. It has overwhelmingly positive connotations for consumers, who associate it with connectivity to the outside world as well as with better management of their own personal health, fitness and well-being. It’s associated with a world of opportunities, not with a problem. So why hasn’t the hearing industry embraced this concept and invested in the marketing and communication campaigns that might enable them to own it? Answer: marketing myopia.
But if exceptions prove the rule, at least three are worth noting. They point the way toward a future where hearing aid manufacturers are seen not makers of products exclusively for the old, disabled, or infirm, but as high-tech leaders who understand the wants and needs of digital consumers:
- ReSound has earned well-deserved praise for capitalizing on the iPhone marketing phenomenon with the first Made-for-iPhone hearing aids. Apple is expected to be a big player in wearable electronics with its upcoming Apple watch and other products that incorporate sensors and wireless communications. And it’s committed to working with the hearing industry to incorporate its new technologies into hearing aids. At the same time, ReSound’s parent company GN Store Nord also owns the Jabra Bluetooth headset business. Jabra is often mentioned as a future leader in wearable electronics and is already integrating its headsets into the web and with smartphones. But so far the ReSound hearing aid business has stopped short of promoting any its own products as “wearables.”
- IntriCon, a leading manufacturer of hearing aid components and subsystems, has rebranded itself as a “body-worn electronics company.” IntriCon’s sensors and digital-signal-processor-based systems and wireless communications technologies are being built not only into hearing aids but also into an array of medical devices, including cardiac and diabetes monitoring systems. But in the hearing business its products are most often used by system manufacturers or resellers promoting their own brands of traditional hearing aids, so its message about body-worn technology often isn’t visible to the end consumer.
- Finally, Stuart Karten, whose Karten Design consultancy is a principal advisor to the Starkey hearing aids business, has been talking up hearing aids as wearable technologies for nearly the entire seven years that he has been working with Starkey. Now he is taking a visionary look beyond wearable electronics to a world of “invisible electronics.” In a recent article in VentureBeat, he says: “Invisibles will create a world in which we don’t see technology or sensors; they are seamlessly integrated into the human body….Through our work on invisible hearing aids, we discovered that ear-based wearables provide information more naturally than screens, and they are essentially invisible if designed well.” Watch for Starkey to start incorporating some of Karten’s marketing messages on wearables and invisibles into new upcoming products.
Should the hearing industry stop telling people it provides hearing aids? Absolutely not. The great thing about marketing and communication is that perceptions change as companies imbue their products with new capabilities and personalities. But changing those perceptions requires a lot of communication about those new benefits. Associating hearing aids with the hot new concept of wearable technologies is a great way to start changing those negative perceptions associated with “hearing aids” into positive feelings that will attract new customers.
The good news is that the wearable electronics market still is in its infancy — akin to the Detroit auto industry before Henry Ford came along with his mass-produced Model T. So the mantle of leadership in “wearable electronics” is still there for the taking. It will be a year of opportunity for hearing industry companies willing to take a risk and start telling the stories of their wearable technologies in new, more exciting ways.
And what about that $8-billion wearables market forecast for 2018? What if the same industry analysts included the entire hearing industry in their global market forecasts for wearable electronics? You would already have a market greater than $8 billion — the approximate size of today’s global hearing aid business — today.