“Our technology should make people feel something”: Vodafone talks smart tech

Vodafone has been operating within telecoms for the best part of 40 years – a period which has seen it become one of the world’s biggest mobile network providers, with 300m mobile customers around the world; and a respected name in both mobile broadband and TV, boasting 27m and 22m customers in those categories respectively. Now, it’s looking to cement itself as a major player in the internet of things (IoT) space as well.

Around about three years ago, Vodafone launched an IoT platform called ‘V by Vodafone’. This platform enabled consumers to connect third-party electronic products to the telecoms giant’s global IoT network and eventually led to the release of products such as the V-SOS Band and the V-Kids Watch. Nonetheless, the V by Vodafone platform would soon become ‘Vodafone Smart Tech’ and begin a journey toward creating its own IoT products.

“We learned a key lesson, which was about creating leading customer experiences,” says Pamela Brown, Chief Marketing Officer at Vodafone Smart Tech. “It’s a nascent category and, to really open up the category and ignite it, we stood back and we realised that we needed to build the experience end-to-end from a hardware perspective, the software on the device, and also integrate that all into one app, the Vodafone Smart app. And thats really been the plan that weve been executing on over the last 12 months.”

The shift toward becoming Vodafone Smart Tech involved discussions with consumers in places such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and the UK. In listening to consumers, the brand realised it had to begin building “that leading customer experience” itself and that these consumers also struggled with the idea of ‘V by Vodafone’ from a marketing perspective.

“People didnt quite understand Vodafones role because, although we were branding it ‘V by Vodafone’, they were in fact somebody elses devices connected with a Vodafone SIM. And that was a little bit confusing for consumers,” explains Brown. “The role of Vodafone wasnt very clear. So, when we reset our product strategy, which was to design end-to-end, in-house hardware and software integrated in one app, we also decided we would redesign our brand approach with that.”

Fast forward to the here and now, Vodafone has released Curve, a smart tracker it debuted last summer, and unveiled Neo, a smartwatch for kids that was developed with Disney and will go on sale soon.

With these two devices, Vodafone has chosen to make its role clear and hero the devices through product imagery and lifestyle imagery, while putting a focus on educational content around smart tech on its eShop.

“We tested pages where we had more educational content about smart tech. When we did that our conversion rate was five times higher than without that information. So, we know education in this category is important,” says Brown. “People want more information about everything to do with it, which I was quite surprised about. It just goes to show that theres a theres an interest in it but, in order to make the purchase and decide to part with their money, consumers want to really get into the details of how they can use it and how it works.”

Vodafone, which already boasts more than 100m IoT connections, believes that one of the most important factors in its products is the fact that they have its SIM cards at their core. And both existing products focus on the idea of keeping connected – something that has been pushed to the forefront of many people’s minds in the past year.

“Weve been connecting people from day one, we continue to connect them, its just in new ways. And weve got a wonderful customer base,” says Brown. “We want to continue to find ways for our customers to stay connected. And in this pandemic that weve been living through for nearly a year now, we’ve really experienced how important that connection is.”

Curve is a multi-purpose tracking device, which can be attached to pet collars, cars, school bags, laptop bags, and anything else you can think of. It enables consumers to keep track of the things or people they care about.

Neo, on the other hand, is a smartwatch for children which features characters and content from Disney. It doesn’t connect to the open internet or any social media channels and parents are completely in control of the access their child gets, including being able to control who is in their child’s contact list of up to 10 people. Vodafone sees the Neo as providing children with a “first safe step and relationship” with technology, according to Brown.

Both products have been marketed with the aim of generating desirability through product imagery, relevance through lifestyle imagery, and education through illustration in the form of how-to guides, infographics, and videos.

The biggest portion of Vodafone’s advertising budget for the products is in digital, with a focus on performance marketing, social media, and working with influencers, but it is also utilising TV advertising, out-of-home, and radio advertising.

One area where the brand has had to adapt is how it would market products within its retail stores. Or, in the case of the past year, how it would replace retail interactions with ones in the virtual world. And, for Neo, it has done this by creating an augmented reality (AR) experience.

“Traditionally, our retail stores would play a big part in our marketing, but the past year hasn’t allowed that to happen for the most part,” says Brown. “For Neo, because we knew the likelihood of retail stores being open would be quite low, we actually created an AR experience. You can go onto the Vodafone Smart Tech website, scan the QR code, and you can demo the watch at home. That’s one of the key ways that weve had to adapt because we know this education part is so important. How can we bring a demo to people at home and help them along the purchase funnel? Thats a really key component.”

For Neo, of course, Vodafone also has the benefit of having Disney launch its own creative campaigns around the device.

Meanwhile, from an influencer standpoint, Vodafone is only working with parents who are influencers rather than working with child influencers because “we are quite adamant that all our marketing is very responsible and we’re not necessarily marketing to kids”.

“We want to make sure that parents are buying the device because it is a device that they know will be helpful for their children and will help them on that first step within the smart tech journey and because its a safe device to use for kids,” explains Brown.

Over the course of this year, Vodafone will continue to invest in both Curve and Neo, continuing to promote both and deliver new accessories, content, and software. And this desire to continue investing in the products also ties into the brand’s ambitions to keep its customers happy and do its bit the environment.

“There are many features and functionalities that were investing in, building, and creating, and well continue to listen to our customers. Thats the magic formula: what is it customers are doing with their device today? What could they be doing more of better? How can we enhance that experience? And what capabilities have we been building? And then it all comes together beautifully and I get the great job of marketing that and building the customer proposition for it,” says Brown.

“Also, we are very much thinking about usefulness of our technology. The Curve, being a multi tracking device, it might be that one month you’re using on your pet heavily and the next month you’re wanting to put it on your kid’s school bag. What we will do is continue to invest in this product. A real consumer fear is that the old version becomes obsolete in a year and then youve got to upgrade and buy a new one, like we have to do with TVs,” Brown continues. “We will continue to build features and capabilities and deploy them to the devices. We always want to be investing in these devices that our customers buy, rather than making them a throwaway device. So, thats really important to us.

“Sustainability is a key pillar for us a Vodafone, so it really is built into the whole process, from inception of idea, through the product development, through to the delivery of what we have on shelf and in peoples homes.”

Vodafone’s work over the past year also saw it pick up a Good Design Award and the IoT Breakthrough ‘Consumer IoT Platform of the Year’ Award.

“It was the end of last year, just before both of them were announced, we realised that we had won both of them. So, it was quite nice going into Christmas. The Good Design Award really speaks to that ambition that we had, which was to create desirable products. So, to win a design award is like, ‘brilliant, happy days’,” says Brown.

“Our other award was more about our approach. The IoT Breakthrough Award was an award recognising our new approach within the philosophy of designing and connecting our own devices, and our new strategy moving away from third-party devices and investing in the whole end-to-end experience. So, we all went into Christmas holidays feeling like, ‘oh yeah, were doing the right thing, let’s keep going in the new year’. It felt great and we were really excited.”

Despite winning the awards, Vodafone says it is not going out looking to win more and its focus is solely on providing the best products for consumers to connect them to the things they care about.

“We spend a lot of time with consumers and Ive been on some fascinating Zoom calls over the last 12 months in peoples homes,” adds Brown. “One great thing that’s come out of this pandemic is that, whilst weve not physically been able to sit around a table with consumers, we have been in their homes. We have been experiencing their lives and some of the challenges that they face, which helps us think about what are the solutions that we can build to connect for a better future.

“If we just continue to focus on the customer, to build solutions that will really make a difference in their lives and find ways to bring that to life for them, the awards will come off the back of it. That’s really our focus.

“To quote Maya Angelou, ‘people will forget what you say, they will forget what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel’. And I think our technology should make people feel something,” Brown concludes.