Byline: Sharon Edelson

When you think of early adopters of new technology — those voracious consumers of the latest gadgets and gizmos — the image that probably comes to mind is a Bill Gates-type computer nerd.
Well, think again. Naomi Campbell is the poster girl for advanced electronics, a globetrotting supermodel who carried a portable phone 10 years ago — long before they became standard operating equipment for the young and ambitious.
“I love to feel like I’m moving and going,” said Campbell. “My home base is on a plane, so I need to have a portable office and everything has to fit in my purse. I need to have the newest technology so I can feel like I’m up and running.”
“She likes to do things the fastest, newest way possible,” said her publicist. “She’s about speed and getting things done. She loves the portable DVD player, has the World Phone and was the first to have a digital video recorder.”
In fact, Campbell has become something of a one-woman focus group for manufacturers of high tech products. Companies like Motorola routinely send Campbell their newest products, such as the baby StarTAC phone, in the hope that she’ll like them enough to spread the word to her fashionable friends.
What drives early adopters to be the first on their block to buy the latest high tech product?
“There simply are people who are very interested in the technology and find it important to have something before other people,” said Barbara Bund, a senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and marketing consultant. “Part of it is a positive attraction of what the technology will do for them. What appeals to people is function. People feel they’re under such pressure. They think these devices will help them use their time more efficiently.”
“The motivation is empowerment,” said Janine Lopiano Misdom, a partner in Sputnik Inc., a trend forecaster. “Early adopters like having the power of being connected and being part of the new guard. They like controlling everything around them and connecting it back to themselves, and the technology has to do with personalization. It’s the idea that anything that customizes and betters my life is perfect.
“These people buy high tech products because it feeds their ego,” Misdom added. “It’s not about status in the old, traditional sense of luxury. It’s status in terms of being perceived as being smart and savvy. When you have a high tech device and you meet someone who has the same product, you feel as if you’re part of this collective.”
Futurist Watts Wacker, who is ceo of FirstMatter, a think tank based in Westport, Conn., says there has been a movement away from the representation of self through possessions to the representation of self through the media, and gadgets are tied to the new mediacentricity.
“You reveal yourself more by what movies you watch and what web sites you visit than by what car you drive,” Wacker said. “Relative to gadgets, however, fashion is still demonstrative. But gadgets will be part of accessories or clothing itself. It’s really about multi-media clothing. Companies like 3Com had better learn about fashion, and people who come from a fashion discipline will have to embrace technology.”
Already, IBM is testing prototypes of a wearable PC and a Watch Pad that represent the fusion of technology and accessories. The wearable PC monitor flips over the user’s head like a headband and has a display that sits in front of the eye. “The display looks like a normal-size computer screen to the eye,” said Phil Hester, chief technology officer of IBM’s Personal Systems Group. “It could be a great fashion accessory.”
The Dick Tracy-style Watch Pad, also in the test stage, has a face which is a programmable display. It will send and receive e-mail and run voice-recognition software. “Because the watch face is programmable, you can make it look different and match it to different outfits,” said Hester, adding that IBM would like to do for PCs what Swatch did for the watch segment — introduce fun, fashionable designs.
While early adopters have historically been men, marketers have been making a concerted effort to appeal to women. Products like cell phones and DVDs have been featured on the editorial pages of fashion magazines in recent months and Neiman Marcus in its May catalog, The Book, devoted a full page to high tech toys such as a DVD player, LCD flat-screen TV and digital voice recorder.
“We call it ‘backstage access,”‘ said a Neiman’s spokesman. “Everyone is looking for the newest thing. There’s always been a demand for gadgets, but when you see iMac computers in designer colors and Gucci mousepads, you know they’ve crossed over into the luxury realm.”
In the fall, an ad campaign for the Palm Pilot VII hand-held computer aimed at women featured profiles of fictional characters with glamorous jobs, such as Catherine Hennes, an exotically clad fashion designer. Another ad geared toward young consumers introduced Sean Sloan, a deejay and record producer, and ran exclusively in college magazines.
But most manufacturers of high tech gadgets rely on buzz rather than big advertising budgets. “Viral marketing and word of mouth are key components of the marketing of gadgets,” said Cecelia Pagkalinawan, founder and chief executive officer of Boutique Y3K, an interactive ad agency. “The fact that there are chat rooms dedicated to these products and user help lines is due to consumer enthusiasm. With fashion, there’s no extended buzz factor.”
Doug Lloyd, owner of Lloyd & Co., an ad agency here, believes that the makers of advanced electronics have taken a page from the fashion industry by developing trendy items with a strong sense of design, such as Nokia’s chrome cell phone.
“It’s not terribly different from how designers approach making a handbag or certain accessory into a must-have item,” said Lloyd. “A lot of word-of-mouth and editorial coverage has led to these products becoming must-have items.”
Bang & Olufsen, the upscale Danish audio, video and telephone manufacturer, has always placed a premium on design — the company’s slogan in the Sixties was, “For those who put style and quality above price.”
“We’re all about form and function,” said Zean Nielsen, who oversees U.S. retail and marketing for Bang & Olufsen. “All of our products have artistic qualities.”
Nielsen noted that the new BeoVision Avant TV, which sells for $8,500, is available in a variety of fashionable colors and comes with its own motorized stand. “It doesn’t look like a television,” said Nielsen. “It looks like a piece of art to put in the living room.”
“Design matters more and more all the time,” noted IBM’s Hester. “When the PC started out, it was this beige lump that sat on your desk. Now the question is, ‘Does it look cool?”‘
“For many buyers, their Think Pads and NetVista products are extensions of who they are,” said Sharon Driscoll, marketing director for the IBM Personal Systems Group. “Your PC says you are sleek, sophisticated and not particularly showy. That all comes out of the design.”
Public relations executive Paul Wilmot summed up the psychology of early adopters as “keeping up with the dot-Joneses” and admitted that he’s been seduced by some of the new products on the market.
“When you look at the resolution of Fujitsu’s flat, plasma-screen TV, you weep,” said Wilmot, who shelled out $1,000 for the Nokia chrome phone. “There’s a blurring of the lines between luxury and high tech. The person who is modern wants a plasma-screen TV, a Palm Pilot VII and a sable coat. It’s a mind-set.”
“These things are status symbols for female executives, particularly dot-com executives,” said Pagkalinawan. “The cell phone, Palm Pilot and PC are part of your image.”
And just as important as the gadgets themselves in creating that image are the carrying cases that protect the products. Everyone from Coach to Louis Vuitton to Prada now includes Palm Pilot, cell phone and laptop covers in their collections, and Samsonite is creating special outerwear with pockets for these devices.
“I have a Prada computer bag,” said Pagkalinawan. “I bought it a few years ago at Bergdorf Goodman in the men’s department. The fashion industry has realized that this is a demographic they need to reach. Now every luxury accessories manufacturer is making cases for women.”