CES 2016

5 Ways Marketers Are Already Putting Sensors to Work

Next-gen ideas are sure to be the talk of CES

Sensors are sparking trends in wearables, clothing and virtual reality.

For tech-savvy marketers and brands, sensors are bound to be big business—once everyone has figured out what to do with them.

According to branding and marketing experts, we're still in the early days for sensors, which are devices that detect or measure a physical property and record or respond to it in some way. If that sounds vague, that's because it is; sensors are part of wearables, smartwatches, beacons, smartphones and virtual reality–all of which will be on display at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Think of sensors as the eyes and ears of computers.

The perk for marketers, of course, is that all of these various sensors collect data, and lots of it.

"Advertising has always sought to change or build someone's emotional response to a brand," said Ben Samuel, marketing technology director for PHD. "With the data that sensors can produce, there's a real possibility that emotional response can be reliably inferred or even targetable in the future by using combinations of heart rate, temperature and skin changes."

This has already played a role in how marketers are producing live events, which is where marketing and branding experts agree sensor-based marketing efforts will be focused in 2016. For example, Mindshare has used sensors for clients like Jaguar. The agency got 20 consumers to wear biometric cuffs, which measure heart rate, motion and audio levels, during last fall's Wimbledon. By gaining insight into the "stimulation and emotion," they were able to gauge "crowd reaction," said Jeff Malmad, Mindshare's managing director and head of mobile. That data was then pushed out through social media for Jaguar's #FeelWimbledon campaign and upped consumer engagement on social media channels nearly 12 percent.

Still even as marketers find success, some are skeptical of sensors' current applications. Ian Schafer, CEO and founder of Deep Focus, which has used similar live-event tactics for clients like Pepsi, believes there's "a lot of promise [with sensors]" but "not a lot of substance" yet. "There's been a little bit of progress with Internet of Things-type stuff," said Schafer. "But from a wearables perspective—where I think some of the most interesting sensor stuff can happen—we're still in that intermediate awkward stage where we're trying out technologies that mimic the end state that we're not quite ready to get to yet."

Ready or not, here are five ways marketers are using sensors today:

Fitbits and Other Wearables

By tracking biometrics, like someone's heart rate or how many steps he or she is taking, wearables can play a big role in event-based sensor marketing, like Mindshare's #FeelWimbledon campaign. That's where marketers and brand experts agree sensor marketing will take hold in 2016.


Clothing with sensor technology is still nascent, but major apparel brands like Under Armour, Ralph Lauren and even Levi's have been working to develop their offerings. "The structure of textiles is the same as the structure of touch screens which we're using in everyday mobile devices and tablets," said Ivan Poupyrev, founder of Google's Project Jacquard (which Levi's is a part of), in a video last May introducing the project that is meant to figure out how to weave technology into fabric. "That means that if you just replace some of the threads in the textiles with conductive threads, you should be able to weave a textile which can recognize a variety of simple touch gestures, like any touch panel you have on a mobile phone."


Beacons, or location-based sensor technology, like Estimote's wireless hardware, allow marketers to pinpoint where consumers are and to send push notifications of sales and recommendations to their smartphones. Target in August began testing Swirl beacons in 50 of its stores. "The great potential of beacons in retail is to finally unite our twin retail identities—our physical self and our digital self," said Andy Hood, head of emerging technologies, AKQA.

Apple Watch

With the arrival of the Apple Watch 2.0, which is rumored to have a March release date, marketers expect to create experiences designed solely for the watch's capabilities. While currently the Apple Watch measures data similar to wearables such as Fitbits, Mindshare's Malmad noted that it's "from a sensor-based scale, [on] the front line of technology." Derek Fridman, group creative director for Huge, agreed. The creative agency opened a coffee shop in September that works as a test kitchen for the shop's use of sensor technologies, and it has been using the Apple Watch to track its employees' heart rate to figure out when they are busiest, which "is helping them do their jobs better," said Fridman.

Virtual Reality

Thanks to sensors, brands like American Express and Volvo are experimenting with virtual reality. Publishers also have signed on, including The New York Times, which partnered with Google Cardboard to send readers on VR tours of New York and war-torn regions. By tracking head movements, sensors enable the immersive VR experience.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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