Customers don’t buy technology. They don’t even buy products. They buy into the promise of a brand and then measure its delivery through outcomes.

How do you squeeze 60 football fields into inches? By taking the world’s largest trade show, stretching about 3 million square feet, boasting 170,000-strong attendance, and turning it into an all-digital format. In 2021, technologists, marketers, and gadget geeks assembled remotely for a virtual CES. I live-streamed and clicked through three days’ worth of programming, and these are my four key takeaways:

  1. The distinction between tech and brand continues to blur.

Forrester recognizes that most brand experiences are inseparable from technology. Of greatest interest to the marketer is not the technology itself but how it shows up for the customer. For example, Caterpillar exhibited colossal autonomous mining trucks operating in the most inhospitable of climates. But customers don’t buy technology. They don’t even buy products. They buy into the promise of a brand and measure its delivery through outcomes. And these outcomes are driven by the technology in these behemoth Caterpillar trucks — monitoring people and equipment to improve safety and operational efficacy. General Motors’ vehicles may be much smaller than Caterpillar’s, but technology plays an equally significant role. And embracing this role at the auto manufacturer is a “lead designer for choreographed experiences” responsible for putting technology in service of the experience. The upshot: The implementation of technology must be thoughtful, deliberate, and designed to enhance brand experiences.

  1. No matter what comes after the pandemic, old-fashioned experience isn’t going anywhere.

In the “new normal” chorus of the pandemic, the real question is which of our pandemic habits will stick in a post-pandemic world. Mastercard’s CEO Michael Miebach has an answer. He believes that about two-thirds of the consumer shift toward digital will persist and mostly reflect routine interactions and transactions. (Who gets a kick out of swiping a piece of plastic, anyway?) When the pandemic lifts and the “revenge spree” of spending and travel subsides, consumers will settle into equilibrium to continue seeking out traditional brand experiences that create value. According to CEO Corie Barry, when Best Buy reopened stores, the most trafficked areas were those with complex entertainment offerings that had to be experienced to be evaluated and appreciated.

  1. Hybrid experiences will capture the best of both worlds.

For all the limitations of operating virtually, a digital CES vastly multiplies accessibility and affordability. In a post-pandemic world of many options, the “whole” of hybrid formats will be greater than the sum of the digital and high-touch physical parts. Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, told attendees that he fully expects a large part of the surge in online orders and store pickups to sustain. But sometimes we want to smell the mangoes and prod the avocados. And that’s OK; we don’t have to give up one format for the other. A three-day live-streamed concert at the iconic (but empty) Red Rocks amphitheater featuring Megan Thee Stallion, among others, played to a virtual audience of around 9 million people (about 1,000 times the physical capacity). Planning connected hybrid experiences from the get-go is going to be a post-pandemic best practice.

  1. There’s much work to be done to sort out bias that’s built into tech.

AI was, yet again, front and center at CES — Accenture CEO Julie Sweet quickly identified it as a pivotal technology to shape the future. In a conversation about self-driving cars with author and journalist Thomas Friedman, Mobileye CEO Amnon Shashua spoke, almost wistfully, about how difficult it is to code human values (such as being careful in the context of self-driven cars) into AI. Paradoxically, another part of AI is plagued with the inability to rid itself of a very human condition: prejudice. A CES panel tackling gender and racial bias left the audience wanting more. What got shortchanged in the overall CES programming was a deeper dive into technology’s role in perpetuating bias and injustice. But this much is clear: “Representation matters” takes on a whole different meaning when it comes to AI. Running complex models trained on homogeneous data that does not represent a heterogeneous world bodes poorly for accuracy. Marketers must be incredibly diligent in ensuring that their opaque models aren’t masking the truth.


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