At CES, you can find long-lasting brands like RCA and Kodak showing products of work that is much different from their original businesses.
LAS VEGAS — Wares from RCA, formerly the Radio Corporation of America, have been at CES since the technology show was born 50 years ago.
For much of that time, though, RCA technically hasn’t existed as an independent business. Since the late 1980s, RCA has been a rented brand name slapped on products made under contract by companies from Toronto to the Philippines and China.
CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, showcases products made by some of the biggest manufacturing giants in the world, including Samsung, Toyota and Intel.
It’s also a locus of the strange relationships wrought by capitalism. CES’ halls these days are filled with dozens of component manufacturers, many based in Asia, vying for business from companies with name recognition among consumers. That means the name on a finished television or smartphone often has little to do with what’s inside, or the people who made it.
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Branding matters in technology. Many consumers don’t take the time to find out what makes gadgets tick. Marketing and the value that people assign to it help explain why Apple and Samsung products command a higher price than devices built by other companies.
Hisense, a Chinese company best known in the U.S. for selling discount TVs at Wal-Mart, two years ago bought rights to sell Sharp-branded TVs in the U.S. The company’s gargantuan booth here mixes Hisense-branded TVs with those labeled with the name of the Japanese electronics firm from which it bought a brand.
Across the Las Vegas Convention Center sat Kodak. Or, rather, two Kodaks. One is the successor to the legendary New York photo company that went bankrupt in 2012.
The other, Kodak Pixpro, was created in 2013 when old Kodak was restructuring its debt pile. The company licensed the rights to sell Kodak-branded cameras to JK Imaging, a little-known outfit led by an executive at a Florida electronics distributor.
Kodak Pixpro employs about 30 people between a Los Angeles office and a few sales and marketing hands in Europe. They were at CES primarily to showcase a line of cameras aimed at capturing video for virtual reality.
“People see the Kodak name, and say, ‘Hey, can you sponsor this, invest in that?’” said Tracy Christall, JK Imaging’s marketing director. She often has to say no, telling people the company isn’t related to the other Kodak.
Natalie Mizik, who studies marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, says the value that consumers attach to brand names can last longer in high-tech businesses than other industries.
Pam Kunick-Cohen is trying to extend the life span of RCA. She works at Technicolor, the French conglomerate that owns the rights to RCA. The name traces its roots to 1919, when the U.S. government ended a wartime monopoly on radio technology.
RCA grew into a giant, founding what became NBC and acquiring interests ranging from record players to rental cars. Research conducted by the company’s laboratories helped bring about color television, liquid crystal displays, and VCRs.
The company was acquired by General Electric in 1986 and sold for parts.
Now, RCA-branded products are built by contract manufacturers with a mandate to try to keep up with new technologies while making reasonably priced products. “We’re not going to be out there trying to out-innovate Samsung or LG,” Kunick-Cohen said.
RCA customers tend to be residents of middle America, she said, shoppers who encounter RCA products at Target, Kmart or Wal-Mart. They also tend to skew older, folks who remember the earlier RCA.
“We still have an amazing amount of market awareness for a brand that hasn’t been as active as it was 30 years ago,” Kunick-Cohen said. “The interesting part of this business model is the consumer often doesn’t know.”