Julie Bauer joined Panasonic Corp. of North America in July 2013 as president of its consumer sales division. She previously held senior level positions in direct marketing, online strategy, e-commerce and multichannel transformation with Guthy-Renker, Mattel, Inc., and Best Buy Co. I had a chance to sit with her at Panasonic’s new headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, to talk about the Panasonic brand and their digital imaging strategies.
JG: What’s your role at Panasonic?
JB: Actually I wear two hats. I’m president of the consumer division, but from an overall Panasonic North America perspective, I run marketing and digital. This enables me to focus on the growth of the company and where we’re headed in a broader sense.
With Panasonic being involved in so many consumer and B-to-B categories, what does the brand stand for?
According to our own consumer research, we were primarily thought of as a television company, even though we have a legacy in digital products. I thought it was very important to take a look at the business and figure out how we can bolster up the product categories we do really well in, and how we can pursue new consumer segments that we might not have been reaching by being so highly focused on televisions.
Our core is entertainment and digital imaging, but we have recently expanded into adventure, where we are going head to head with GoPro. In fact, that was highlighted at CES, and we’re ready to take them on. We also have many successful products in the beauty category, spanning into laser technology and working with companies like Shiseido, Estée Lauder and Sephora. And then the final area is home connectivity.
We’ve always had products in the home, whether it’s our induction microwaves, blenders or juicers, but now we’re getting into the connected home, in which digital imaging plays an important role. This year we’re focusing primarily on safety and security, but we’re moving into energy consumption, monitoring of the home, entertainment applications and wearable technologies. So we have revamped the consumer business so it’s no longer just about TVs.
It sounds like Panasonic is somewhat of a hybrid company. But you’ve certainly been coming on strong in digital imaging, especially with the introduction of the Lumix GH4.
We love our DI business; we love the fact that professionals and consumers are converging together, and we have hero products like the GH4 that appeal to both. We have a very healthy digital imaging business, but we also want to continue to entice the younger crowd back into cameras.
To that end, we’re excited about the adventure segment. We have great wearable, POV technology—and there will be more exciting news soon! To show our capabilities, we put our A500 wearable camcorder on a horse in the Kentucky Derby, which showed the race from a jockey’s perspective. We have a lot of that imagery that we use. It’s a big growth area for us.
With smartphones seemingly taking over the camera business, is it too late to bring millennials back into the camera category?
I don’t think so. Some of the research we fielded demonstrates how brand agnostic they can be. They can switch in a moment: about what they’re thinking or what they’re doing. So part of our marketing strategy is in the blogging/influencing space, and we’re finding the role models to whom millennials are listening. That’s why we’re involved with Lifetime Fitness and Spartan races. We want to be where they are and try to reach them in that kind of a way, rather than through a retail channel that can sometimes be non-inspiring. This is a group who has to “feel” the technology, and then they go “oh, this is why I should own this.” We have to create an emotional response with people, as to why they would need this in their lives. After all, we all agree that in the U.S., people have no problem replacing their technology pretty quickly.
You mentioned GoPro. Is that a way to bring young people in, and what are you doing to infiltrate that market?
Well first of all, to go after that market you say that you’re going after them. When you call out your competition, like we did at CES, it lets the market know you’re serious. We have some better technology and can offer other unique capabilities.
Does GoPro have an advantage by being so singularly focused?
I’m mixed on that. Years ago Panasonic was singularly focused on TVs and it got us in trouble. I think it’s good to have diversity in your portfolio. Also, there are synergies among products; if you’re in one space, does that limit you from other enhancements or other scenarios that an end user might want to have? I like the breadth of our portfolio in the digital imaging ecosystem. I think it gives us strength.
Are TVs part of your digital imaging ecosystem?
We have a whole 4K ecosystem of products, including the TV. The TV is our best screen for content delivery, but it also has another role with connected homes. We’ve done a lot of integration among our connected home products with cameras and televisions. Our 4K technologies expand beyond televisions into digital imaging and Blu-ray players. We’re marketing the entire ecosystem, which is an advantage we have over GoPro, because they’re only supplying one thing.
You have the big screen and the images to show on it, but it seems the “let’s gather around the living room and look at our pictures” activity never really took off. Is it a generational thing?
I think everything has a time. In my own household, we’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on the screen, or downloadable content. Also, video is more interesting—running in a race or watching an HD video of your kid’s basketball game on a screen—than a still photograph. I feel as a family we are shifting to nesting around the screen. It’s a huge screen that you can’t replicate on the phone. The younger generation is demanding better quality on smaller screens as well.
You’re competing with consumer electronic brands like Samsung and Sony, as well as classic camera brands like Nikon and Canon. What do you see as your advantage in the market over those brands?
One advantage is that we design and manufacture excellent products and win a lot of awards. We just have to communicate that more to the end consumer. We haven’t been spending as much as others. We’re planning to increase that. Once people hear about and use our product, there’s no reason why Panasonic wouldn’t be a finalist in winning the eventual sale.
How are you planning on getting your branding message out there?
Manufacturers must have one step direct to retail. We also have our own e-commerce solution, branded pop-up stores, experiences in the Lifetime Fitness clubs, and even at professional football games; in some stadiums you can use our camera-lending bar to test out our cameras. All of this enables us to get direct consumer feedback and consumer loyalty. So it’s a little different approach than our competition. Millennials don’t have brand loyalty, so if we create a unique experience, they’ll consider us just as much as they would a classic camera brand.
If you’re creating your own experiences, is that a good thing for other retailers?
I think we’re helping them, because we’re only in select locations and we’re doing it to build the brand and build awareness. The true volume and scale comes through our photo specialty dealers, brick-and-mortar partners, or through our online retailers like Amazon.
What do you see as photo specialty’s strength for Panasonic?
I love how they do retail. I worked for Best Buy for eight years and also at Target when I was much younger. One thing that happens when you get into that scale—1,200 store footprints—is sometimes the customer experience can be dimmed down. What’s so wonderful about photo specialty dealers is that they really care about what the customers’ needs are. So you’re not fighting through a maze of stores within a store; you’re in a dedicated location that’s composed of people who love digital imaging. They’re really educated about it, and they can talk to you about what you need. That’s their advantage. You can’t take that experience and put it in a big store; it just doesn’t work. We really love working with photo retailers because they’re open to creative ideas about how to sell our products. And they give us ideas; they tell us what customers think.
What do you want the Panasonic brand to be going forward?
Our research shows we are considered a “trusted guardian brand”; people can trust us. It’s important for us to own that ground. If you buy one of our products, it’s reliable, high quality and innovative. We’re not a start-up, and we’re not a “me too.” We aren’t going to disappear. We’re continuing to carve our own brand.
What keeps you up at night?
We have huge growth objectives, but we also want to get our brand agenda completed. I know we have the brand strength and trust to build consumer allegiance. We’re certainly bullish on growth in digital imaging, and we have to continue to reach the people who might not think they need our products. It’s a competitive market, but I’m very confident that Panasonic will continue to lead the way and show consumers how our diverse capabilities can improve their lives. panasonic.com