Panasonic Insider Interview with Steve Rust
Recently, I had the privilege of being able to interview the Managing Director of Panasonic Australia, Steve Rust. I caught up with Steve at Panasonic HQ to ask some questions on behalf of the Panasonic Insider Crew, and obtain his thoughts on the consumer electronics industry in general as well as his outlook for 2012.
Boyd: Thanks for your time and the opportunity to ask you some questions, Steve. First up, what do you think of OLED display technologies and how that will impact the existing LCD and plasma markets?
Steve: I think this year’s market in televisions is going to be mainly around LED. Plasma will remain in the market because there’s a strong awareness of plasma in Australia around the better quality viewing experience that it delivers. We see LED, plasma and new technologies like OLED as different ways of delivering a solution to consumers for television. OLED will have limited penetration because of price and the consumer will need to see a real tangible benefit to buy an OLED television over an LED or plasma television. However, I believe the main trends in television this year will be increased connectivity, slimline units and ongoing improvements to picture quality.
Boyd: How do social networks and other social initiatives fit in with Panasonic’s vision for its products and brand?
Steve: We invested in social networks around two years ago and we were really the first local brand to get into this in a major way. We’ve been active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs since that time which have been largely successful when talking about participation. The communities have grown and access of the content that we have been publishing has increased over time. I think we all know that this way is the way of the future – it’s another channel to communicate and engage with the consumer. We’re also using social media for customer service when customers are having issues with a product.
Along with all of this, we’ve implemented improvements to our website so that people can provide feedback on a product which then becomes available to other people viewing our website. That customer feedback is another method of engagement in an online sense with consumers. Of course, we’ve developed the Insider Crew program as well as one of a number of initiatives that we’ve undertaken and certainly keen to continue and value. It’s a very exciting area.
Boyd: What sort of trend are you seeing with regards to device integration with smartphones and tablets? Do you think we’ll start to see an increase in the range of devices offering such integration over the next few years with a vision of a “connected home”?
Steve: I think this really is the biggest trend in the market. Ten years ago in the IT space, all of the talk was about the connected home, and integration between IT and telecommunications. True integration is a seamless integration of all the ways you communicate – visually, verbally, text, et cetera and will be where we’ll get eventually. A great example of convergence is that of IT and television in the form of IPTV and this year is going to see a huge ramp up and I think this is going to be the next area of massive growth.
It seems to me that there is content and there are platforms and the convergence is going to come out of continuing evolution of those platforms and how these platforms interact. It’s pretty fascinating to see such explosive innovation in technology with this year being the start of that explosion. Who knows how rapidly it’s going to develop but I believe it’s going to be extremely fast.
Boyd: How does Panasonic view the tablet market at the moment amid heated competition between Apple and various Android tablet manufacturers while Windows 8 is on the horizon? Does the future lie with touchscreens?
Steve: I think the future lies with a variety of devices from small screens to tablets of different shapes and sizes. Consumers in the end will determine which ones are for them and it may well be, like in many product categories, that different form factors can sit harmoniously in the market as they appeal to different audiences.
How you engage with all of these devices is also open-ended whether you use a mouse, touch, voice or some other way to make that engagement. It all needs to be intuitive, seamless and easy. That will all come about through touch, voice, stylus, mouse, keyboard – so many different ways.
Boyd: Are mobile phones impacting the digital camera and camcorder markets?
Steve: I am very surprised that we haven’t seen as much impact as I would have expected from smartphone cameras. Industry data on compact cameras sold into the market shows that the market isn’t really shrinking. The quality of photography through smartphones is now pretty good and for many people it’s good enough. What that’s telling me is that there’s huge growth in capturing images and I guess we all know that. In terms of personal usage we used to take a photo and we’d be worried about paying to get it printed but now you can take ten photos and it costs you nothing!
You’d have to accept though that a large proportion of people that have digital still cameras have smartphones with camera capabilities and are using both – the two exist in harmony. Of course, there are features on digital still cameras that you can’t get on phones such as high zoom which is a popular part of the digital still market as well as wide angle lenses. Picture and image quality is also important but again the quality on a smartphone is pretty good for most people but for those who want high picture quality they would go for the high end of the digital still range. That market is a strong one for us.
Boyd: How has Panasonic differentiated itself from the competition in more recent years while remaining a progressive and key play in the industry?
Steve: A really good example is Blu-ray. Australia was the first country for Panasonic in which to launch Blu-ray recorders and now we’re the only brand with Blu-ray recording in the market. We’ve got more than fifty percent market share in the total recorder market and we’ve been able to maintain that over the years by being innovative and first to market with new features. We were also first to market with Blu-ray players.
Another category where we’ve been innovative is in compact digital still cameras. From not being in the market ten years ago, Panasonic launched the Lumix camera range and have innovated along the way. An example of some of the key innovations include being first to market with high zoom, wide angle lens, facial recognition and intelligent auto. We, along with Olympus, also developed the Micro Four Thirds system camera which is a whole new category of digital still cameras.
One area where we weren’t first to market was the tough camera. One of our competitors launched a year or two before us and had the market to themselves. We launched our tough camera two years ago, however true to the Lumix philosophy ensured that it provided consumers with high quality pictures along with high definition video recording. It wasn’t long before we overtook the competition in that category because of that key innovation.
Boyd: Any other observations from Panasonic for 2012?
Steve: The consumer electronics market is in huge transformation not just from an innovation point of view but also as a business model. We’re seeing the channels from which consumers traditionally bought products rapidly adapting and evolving. The way consumer’s purchase, what they purchase as well as the devices themselves and the way they integrate are all going through enormous change. It’s not going to be all over this year but we are just at the beginning of an explosion of innovation, technology and consumer experience too.
We’re also starting to see the refreshment of flat screen televisions underway now. We’re seeing the replacement of CRTs but also people incrementally upgrading the size of their televisions as well. Furthermore, consumers are buying devices that will integrate with the rest of their devices.
It’s a pretty exciting field – it’s a buzz for consumers as well as for those working in the industry!
Steve, thanks very much again for your time.