Harman used the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to launch its latest technologies to the consumer and automotive sectors. We caught up with Bill Wyman, Harman's vice president of global marketing for Car Audio, to learn more about its showcase and latest trends in the car audio market place.

In terms of Harman's car audio systems, is there a headline message that you would like to put out here at the CES? 

There are two things that we want to really let people understand. One is, overall Harman has a new approach to innovation, and last year we kind of put our toe in the water when we called it 'RPM to EPM'. The idea really is about those traditional measures of performance like horsepower, speed, turning radius, those aren't that important anymore. It's really about what happens inside the cabin. EPM, we call it 'experience per mile', so what's the experience inside the cabin?

This year we've really re-thought the way we do our innovation to make sure that we're anchoring everything that you see here today. We are anchoring it in experience first, and then what is the technology that unlocks that experience? So, specifically with compromise-free EV what we wanted to really try to do was understand what's in the mind of the consumer, what are their pain points, and then how can we help solve those pain points through a better experience?

So, compromise-free EV there's two things that consumers came back and told us. One is range anxiety is a big deal in an EV, and that's completely understandable. You think about today you get in your car, every other street corner there's a gas station and you can fill up in two minutes and you're on your way. With an EV you've got to plan ahead, you're not sure where the filling stations are going to be, it might take 30 minutes to fill up. It makes sense that people are concerned about that, so every single ounce, every element of power consumption that we can reduce really is helpful.

The strategy for us with compromise-free EV is the EV Plus+ solution that can reduce weight with fewer parts, reduce power consumption yet deliver a high level of performance. That high level of performance is where this idea of compromised experience comes into play.

I think probably if you go back 15 years ago or so when EVs started to hit the road, there was this perception that 'I want to be conscious but I have to sacrifice.' But the reality is you don't, and that's exactly what we're trying to prove with our technology here. You can still get all that level of performance, even though we have lightweighted it, reduced the power and fewer parts.

Two other things that go along with that are the ability to update and personalise the experience in the car. Through audio marketplace this allows you to choose the features and functions that you want, so you can have a personalised experience inside the car.

The second area along that line is branded audio on demand. This is really about how I can get into a car at the dealer and choose between a base audio system or a branded audio system with the touch of a button. The studies that we saw showed that 52% of consumers that want branded audio can't get it today because it's not available on the dealer lot. It kind of makes sense, you go in, you say, 'I want red leather seats and JBL audio,' and they say, 'I've got a green car with JBL audio,' now you have to make that decision. With Ecotect being deployed across all vehicles, software-enabled branded audio on-demand, now everybody gets the opportunity. It solves a lot of consumer pain points.

What's really great about electric vehicles is because they have a different design from an engine perspective, it gives you a lot more flexibility where you can place speakers. When you place speakers in the right position and you can choose the exact right location where you may not have been able to place speakers in the past with a traditional vehicle, the drivetrain might get in the way or whatever, now you are placing those speakers in the exact right place that optimises performance. The Ecotect architecture takes into consideration that ability to place speakers in the right place, so that helps us actually have fewer speakers in the car and yet still deliver that same level of high performance.

So EV Plus+ is ready to go.  Have you got customers yet or could we see it on the road?

Yes, so I can't talk about which customers we have and how far along we are in the development cycle with individual customers, but the technology is ready to go and we expect to see it on the road in the typical development cycle of an OEM, which could be anywhere from 18-24 months.

Chinese tastes are increasingly influencing the design of cars driven not just in China, but around the world. How do you see that influencing the car audio?

What's interesting from an audio perspective, it doesn't matter what market you go into, everybody loves music. Audio plays a critical role in the experience inside the car, and regardless of market what we're finding is the better the performance of an audio system, the more likely people are to have a higher level of overall satisfaction of their vehicle, so not just, 'Hey, I like this audio a lot,' when you have a great audio experience, regardless of market you have a higher level of vehicle satisfaction. We see that in the China market, we see that in Europe, we see that in the US, it doesn't matter.

One of the things that's interesting from a China market perspective is historically they have had a lower level of branded audio penetration, and now we're starting to see that really ramp up. So there are lots of opportunities as people want more and more high level experiences in their car in China, we're there to provide it. Playing up this similar global strategy that we have had in the past, we have a portfolio of brands that allow us to customise the experience and provide just that right brand fit for Chinese OEMs and Chinese customers, just like we do in the rest of the globe.

We often hear more about chauffeur-driven cars more in China than anywhere else. Does that influence audio considerations for rear-seat passengers at all?

It's not more about rear seat versus front seat, where the speakers are, but one of the things that's really important is the ability to communicate more effectively across the cabin, especially, to your point, in China they have a lot of the executives that ride in the back and they need to be able to also communicate clearly with the people in the car, but also at times they want to be able to have their isolation and privacy.

Last year we talked a lot about premium communications where we had personal communication zones, in-car communication, these are all technologies that really allow us to have better communication inside the car as well, of course, as branded audio, high level performance and music.

We heard during a demo that Harman has developed a voice sensing volume fade system. Could you tell us a little more?

Yes, it solves one of the key pain points in the car which is the ability to talk to people and also listen to your music at the same time. This isn't a replacement for what we showed last year, they complement each other. Last year we were talking a lot about in-car communication, speakers and microphones being able to communicate front to back. We can still apply that but now with the voice sensing volume fade as soon as somebody starts to speak that automatically reduces the volume of the music in the car, when they stop speaking it comes back up.

How do you manage the dealership experience?

The dealership experience is critical. More and more consumers are learning about the cars that they want to buy online ahead of time, and that trends not going to change, but that dealer is still an absolutely critical link in the puzzle. If the experience in the dealership isn't spot on, it's an opportunity lost. So, the combination of being able to engage consumers earlier in the path to purchase is really important for us, but ensuring that dealership experience is spot on is critical too, and with our design, the branded audio on-demand, we're helping solve that. So, the fact that now you can get into a car and listen to a base audio system, press a button and now it turns into a branded JBL experience or one of our other brands, right there at the dealership, you can side by side in the same vehicle compare a base audio versus premium audio. We've never been able to do that. This really unlocks the ability for a dealer to feel confident that they can show people the benefit of a branded audio system.

What opportunities do virtual personal assistants open up for Harman?

Last year we talked a little bit about virtual personal assistants coming into vehicles, and more and more, if you think about what a traditional branded audio system has done, it was always about great music. Now we know that it has to go beyond that, voice is critically important, VPA recognition is critically important, isolating sounds within the cabin so that you can have a clean conversation with your VPA is critically important, so we're developing and deploying technologies that allow you to have better interaction through VPA. That clear voice signal going into your VPA can be the difference between driving to a location that you want to be at or being sent to the wrong part of town, which we don't want to happen.

The Ford Fiesta comes with a premium sound system. Is this a growing trend to offer such affordable features in compact cars?

The AB car segment is an area where there are lots of audio opportunities.

The AB segment is an area where lots of opportunities, just like in the higher-level segments those consumers still love music, so the ability to be able to deliver high-quality sound in an affordable package is absolutely one of the places that people are saying, 'Hey, if I can get branded audio in my car then that's a big win for me.'  So with Personify that we talked about last year how that can help people actually deliver that personalised upgraded audio experience in vehicles like your AB segment vehicles.

So let's say a carmaker approaches Harman to develop an audio system for a certain model. What are the considerations? And how do you create a differentiated experience?

One of the first things that we always think about is brand fit, making sure that the brand of audio that is going into the vehicle is the right match, because you want to have an experience that complements each other, rather than an experience that pulls apart from each other. We have a really rigorous process that we call brand fit. It includes semiotics which is the study of symbols, signs, to understand what does a brand mean and what does the consumer perception of that brand mean and how do we make sure that we take our portfolio of brands and put the right brand with the right OEM?

The second thing is we look at and try to understand all the different use cases within the vehicle. The earlier we can get into the design process, the more effective we can be at designing the exact right audio strategy. And that includes placement of speakers, should it have a microphone, what level of performance does it need to scale up to? All of those things go into the earliest phases of trying to build out the exact right solution for our OEM.

How important is the aesthetic design of the audio system for today's consumer?

It's probably one of the more recent trends that we've seen in the last three or five years where the interior design and those unique design elements are really becoming something that people look for. When we think about how to bring our brand to life there are certain DNA elements that we're always really interested in putting into the car. For example, with JBL we have a specific design of a tweeter that we like to see brought into the vehicle. The consumer really appreciates it because it gives them confidence that they're getting the same exact brand experience that they get outside of the car with that brand.

But also, there's a lot of talk value with some of those things. For example, with the Bowers system, the tweeter on top, that's something that visually people see it and recognise it right away. It's a key element of the Bowers brand but also is something that people see in the car and go, 'Hey, I want to show this to my friends, look at this.' It becomes a little bit of bragging rights, the beautiful design inside the car.

What's next for car audio?

Some of the biggest trends I think are probably pushing more into the AB segment like we were talking about before. More and more consumers want to have that audio experience in their car, and we have to be working closely with the OEMs to design the right solutions to meet the needs that they have for their cars, but also make sure that we're delivering a really good audio performance. We don't want to minimise or reduce audio quality, we need to make sure that we're delivering the best audio sound regardless of what level of the vehicle that we're going into. But that AB segment is really, I think, where we're probably going to see more and more.

Bill Wyman is vice president of global marketing for lifestyle automotive at Harman International, where he spearheads the development and execution of global marketing strategies with Harman's OEM partners.

Bill brings over 20 years of diverse marketing experience with some of the world's most recognized consumer brands to his role as Harman's Vice President of Global Marketing for Car Audio. Bill spearheads the development and execution of global marketing strategies with Harman's OEM partners, working to build brand equity and drive take rate growth across all customers and Harman's portfolio of car audio brands.

Prior to joining Harman, Bill held various senior marketing positions at PepsiCo, Duracell and Nabisco. Over his career, he has demonstrated great success reviving brand strategies, exceeding profit goals and delivering high impact customer programs.