Friday, 11 March 2011

Brands Must Be Made Into 'Media Properties' (Brand Week)

When Unilever’s Keith Weed thinks about the future of brand building, he points to an Axe-branded phone sold in Latin America.

To Weed, the chief marketing and communication officer at Unilever, modern marketing embraces the convergence of entertainment, media and brands. He reiterated that point several times Tuesday during an interview at the 4A’s Transformation 2011 conference in Austin, Texas.

“We’re going to have to make our brands much more media properties in [their] own right,” said Weed, who was interviewed by MediaLink chairman Michael Kassan. “We . . . have to connect much more with content and make our brands more relevant.”

Unilever is the second largest advertiser globally (after rival packaged-goods giant Procter & Gamble), with annual marketing spending that exceeds $3 billion. What’s more, one in three people worldwide touch a Unilever brand each day, according to Kassan. As such, “we can’t afford to be niche in what we do,” Weed acknowledged. “I need to know what’s going on in the U.S., what’s going on in China, in Indonesia, in India, et cetera.”

While the infrastructure varies from country to country, consumers in those markets share a fascination with social media, video, gaming and the like. So, different cultures have more in common than in the past, thanks largely to the Web and new technology. The challenge for marketers and agencies, according to Weed, is to dive head first into that scrum.

“You’re not going to be a great prize fighter, a great boxer by watching people box and reading some boxing magazines. The only way you’re going to do it is to get into the ring and have a fight,” Weed said.

Accordingly, a group of some 20 Unilever executives traveled to Silicon Valley last spring in a “ digital journey” that resulted in new deals with Facebook and Apple. Weed is heading back to Northern California this Friday to continue similar meetings.

At the same time, Unilever is meeting with content creators like Disney to create entertainment opportunities. Weed also mentioned gaming as a furtive ground for brand development.

Media fragmentation—and its resulting complexity of choices—remains the biggest challenge facing Unilever and its agencies. Brands can be part of the answer, by connecting media channels in an organized and compelling way, according to Weed. After all, as he sees it, brands simplify life and can simplify the media scene as well.

For more highlights from the 4A's conference, check out Andrew McMains on Twitter.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Unilever Wants to Work With Fewer Digital Shops, More Closely CMO of Packaged Goods Giant Also Talks Talent, Mobile, Procurement and Old Spice

As Unilever streamlines its roster of digital marketing agencies, Keith Weed, the packaged goods giant's chief marketing officer and chief creative officer, is telling the plethora of digital shops it works with around the world: "Now is the time to show us your best, because down the road, we won't be working with all of you."

Mr. Weed explained the moves in an interview during the annual 4A's confab, which for the second year in a row is being held in Austin, Texas. It's a brief stop on a U.S. tour for the London-based executive, who agreed to speak with Ad Age before jetting out to catch a flight to Los Angeles, where he'll be meeting with Hollywood executives to explore branded entertainment and other marketing opportunities for the second largest advertiser in the world.

While the company has been trying to shift to a model where it works with just a handful of large digital shops globally, the process, according to Mr. Weed's estimation, could move faster. "At this stage, we haven't hugely exercised it," he said of the global digital roster it appointed nearly two years ago.

"You can't believe how many digital agencies we're working with now," Mr. Weed said. The idea isn't for Unilever simply to work with fewer agencies, though, but to work with fewer of them while having deeper -- and longer-lasting -- relationships with each. He noted that regional rosters of digital agencies will be created for certain important global markets, too.

Overall, the idea is for Unilever to work with its digital agencies the way it works with its creative agency relationships: a short list of shops which which the company works with on a more stable basis. Its lead creative agencies are WPP's Ogilvy and JWT, Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann and Lowe, Omnicom Group's DDB and Publicis-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty. "We've had relationships with them for decades," and within that, Mr. Weed said, is a "shared ambition."

Here's some additional thoughts from Ad Age's interview with Mr. Weed, as well as his onstage interview on the first day of the conference with MediaLink's Michael Kassan.

On lasting agency relationships: "At the end of the day I want to be where there's innovation, insight, and to do that you need to connect with a team of people. So I'm a believer in working with agencies for a very long time." To change an agency partner, "to me, is a last resort and everyone has failed if that's happened."

On the success of rival P&G's marketing of Old Spice: "I think competition is a great thing. You get better, and the consumer gets a better deal too." Mr. Weed said competition spurs on improvements in work and improvements in product. Wieden & Kennedy's work for Old Spice came after the brand was hurting from the success of Unilever's Axe brand. "The good news is Axe is big, strong and vibrant. Watch for this space, there is going to be some great work coming."

On why talent should be more passionate about the biz: Mr. Weed insisted it's the most exciting time to be in marketing, if you're willing to really embrace the changes and dive in. He compared it to boxing: "If you want to be a spectator and watch something fine, but you're not going to excel at it. ... The only way you're going to do it is to get in the ring and have a fight. You can change the way things are shaped by choices you make. ... I'm a great believer in getting out there and getting engaged." And, he added, "if you don't have aspirations to be great in advertising, and great in this field ... move on."

On procurement's bad rap: "I feel really sorry for these procurement guys. Is anyone in this room procurement?" [No one raised a hand]. "Amongst us, as the say, how do these guys get this reputation? They are sort of like bad car salesmen, a hated tribe. ... If you're in the advertising world you've got to blame the marketers, not the procurement people. I reckon they are hiding behind the procurement. It's [marketers'] fault, they're doing the nasty stuff." Mr. Weed added that while marketers want creativity and innovation, at the end of the day, it's still about business, which means balancing efficiency and effectiveness. The procurement functions shouldn't work counter to one another, but together -- with the marketing expert, not the procurement officer, as the lead. "To be clear, at Unilever, whether it's on a media project or whatever, it's the media expert leading or defining what we want," he said. "Once we define what we want, we'd like to get it as efficiently as possible."

On challenges Unilever faces: "The biggest issue is purely the complexity and fragmentation that's out there. ... The expression 'digital marketing' isn't very helpful. It's about as helpful as 'traditional.'" He noted that for Unilever, which he pointed out is the second-largest advertiser in the world, with a more than $3 billion marketing budget, it can be difficult to know sometimes what channels or technologies make the most sense to reach consumers. "The most challenging thing I see right now is the amount of choices out there." At the same time, fragmentation is making brands more important, he said. "You physically cannot get through the day without being bombarded with all of these messages, and the way you get through the day is by engaging with the brands you want. We're going to see more brands simplifying people's lives."

On the growth of mobile: Briefly touching upon why mobile is becoming a more viable marketing channel, Mr. Weed said it was largely because of sheer number of users in certain markets. "There are over 500 million mobile phones in India. There are more mobile phones in India than toilets. Half of South Asia is openly defecating. I'm sorry if you've just had your breakfast." That comment prompted another speaker of the day, Time Inc. Editor-at-Large Fareed Zakaria, to assure the audience that while growing up in Mumbai he did indeed have a toilet.


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The CMO's Guide to Business as Usual at SXSW (Ad Age)

Starting this weekend, tens of thousands of people will descend on Austin, Texas, for nearly two weeks of speeches and showcases of music, film and interactive media. South by Southwest, or "SXSW," has become the must-attend show for artists and a wide swath of digerati luminaries. If you didn't already know this, you probably don't belong there anyway, and if you did know about it, you're either going to the gig, announcing something there, and/or you've committed your brand to sponsorship.

Has anybody talked to you about this shindig who wasn't trying to sell it to you? I thought it might be helpful to share a little C-level insight with you before the event starts throwing off coverage that either confirms or challenges your suspicions.

First, it's a trade show. Gloriously so, in the spirit of some generic widget soiree circa 1950, only instead of wearing Sansabelt slacks and loud plaid blazers, the conventioneers wear shades of black. The industry isn't as well organized or defined like those of the past, but broadly its trade is digital connectivity through hardware, software or content. It's heartening to me that folks still make the effort to get together in our era of remote and sometimes abstract virtual experience to do what working stiffs have done for decades: party and gossip. SXSW is an improvement on both fronts over past trade shows in that its for-profit organizers have stripped out any pretension of writing customer sales orders to allow attendees to focus on the exchange of ideas and experiences, whether drunkenly or sober. It's the trade show where New Media goes Old School.

Second, in lieu of sales orders, it produces lots of hype. Like the internet that has made it famous, the event exists to transmit stories, so the people there exchanging ideas and experiences are often interested in promoting them to their friends and acquaintances ("followers," in the language of the influence business). This is the event to see people being seen and then report what you saw, all in the special language of microblogging and insider references so it comes across as ever more sight-worthy. As for the stories so transmitted ... well, some big names in the buzz space were launched at SXSW, but one study I found suggested that the stories that stay above the clutter for more than a nanosecond are those with real substance and import (i.e. they're not buzz but business news). The show is less a conduit for insights than it is a launching pad for fleeting fame.

Third, it puts old definitions of payola to shame. The digerati who have promoted a worldview in which information relies on their influence have mostly put themselves up for sale to the highest corporate bidders. So has the show overall: Huge brand names sponsor events as well as an endless array of awards competitions and parties. Bloggers can be bought to fill events with bodies and then anoint news announcements with their imprimaturs. Thank goodness we no longer have to get the facts from those traditional news reporters who kept their biases to themselves. SXSW gives us a bevy of really smart people whose convoluted logic lets them take money and gifts proudly (so much so that government regulation has replaced the fear of shame and ill repute that used to keep those old reporters at least marginally honest). Everybody is spinning everybody else in an enormous corporate self-lovefest that makes past conventions seem like tame church services in comparison. Looking for news about the future? Yeah, just remember CES a few months ago. There's no real information coming out of this event other than how much fun it is to be living right there, right then. And brands still can't buy cool.

But it's a great party, and I find absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's also fundamentally a music event, and Austin happens to be one of the best places on the entire planet for live music, so it's legit at least on that front. There's just no good reason why your brand should spend any money to be involved. Consider the enabling technologies and cultural shifts the SXSW folks are doing a brilliant job of monetizing for themselves: peer-to-peer connectivity, collaboration, consensus and community that spans every distance of space and time. You don't need a tradeshow to operationalize those powerful forces. Do as the experts say, not as they do.

Oh, and I'm not planning on going to SXSW, but if you want to waste oodles of money underwriting my drinking problem, I'm up for grabs. Make me an offer. I'll blog until I pass out.

Meet Your New Media Company: Facebook Social Network Starts Movie Rentals, Threatening Apple, Netflix, Hulu (Ad Age)

A big, powerful wild card just entered the movie distribution business. Warner Bros. Entertainment announced today it will begin distributing movies for sale and for rent through Facebook, beginning with "The Dark Knight." Initially it will be available for rental for $3 or 30 Facebook credits. Ultimately, other Warner movies will be available for both rental and for purchase.

Facebook is already the fastest-growing video service, so adding movies and, one would presume, TV episodes, should accelerate that. Facebook was the sixth-largest video provider in January, according to ComScore, ahead of Microsoft, Turner and Hulu. Unlike Hulu or YouTube, Facebook (thanks to Zynga) already has a robust credits marketplace made up largely of people buying virtual goods for games like "Farmville" and "Mafia Wars."

Hulu and Apple's iTunes have plenty of content and have been working to add social functionality to their services. Why? Because while search is great, TV and movies are social experiences, and they believe that social connections should play a big role in the discovery of content. People want to know what their friends are watching, and Facebook is best positioned to facilitate that.

The big question is how far YouTube goes into movie and TV sales and rentals. Right now YouTube has a limited catalog of movies for rent, such as "Reservoir Dogs" for $1.99, and via ad-supported streaming, like Jackie Chan's "The Young Master." YouTube's strategy seems pretty clear: It won't pay big Hollywood fees for content. Rather, it's looking to cultivate a newmarket for short-form video that exists largely outside Hollywood.

"The Dark Knight" isn't a new release (2008), and Facebook appears to be getting the same terms as iTunes, which rents the film for $2.99 and sells it for $9.99. One thing Facebook (and Netflix) have that Apple doesn't is a beachhead as an app on most internet-connected TVs.

Another way they're similar: Facebook takes a 30% cut of credits transactions, just like iTunes. Still, if Facebook allows studios to sell their wares directly and set their terms, there's no reason its catalog won't expand quickly. Netflix shares opened nearly 3% lower on the Nasdaq the morning this deal was announced.


India, China to drive Unilever growth: Polman

With sales growth in developed markets slowing down, more and more companies will shift their innovation capabilities to growth markets like India and China, according to Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Anglo-Dutch consumer products maker Unilever.

Polman, who is on a four-day visit to India, said in Mumbai today that Indian subsidiary Hindustan Unilever Ltd - the fastest-growing among the entities that form part of the €44 billion company - will be the lynchpin of the strategy to achieve the group's overarching objective of doubling revenues by 2020.

"The Indian entity has turned out its best results in the past 30 years," he said, adding that it would probably continue to grow much faster than the group itself.

As a result, Hindustan Unilever will need to metaphorically spawn a clone that will be as big as itself in the next few years - he didn't spell out the timeline - if the global parent hopes to double its size in the next 10 years.

"In the next 10 years, the global entity will grow its revenues by the same magnitude that it took 125 years to achieve," said Polman, who was poached from Nestle just over two years ago to revive the fortunes of a giant that had started to flounder against niftier rivals.

The turnaround has started to show, with Unilever's overall volumes surging 5.8 per cent in 2010 against 2.3 per cent in the previous year. The emerging markets - which Polman calls the "growth markets" - already account for 53 per cent of Unilever's total business.

The Unilever boss is also paring costs across the organisation, which sells its products to over 2 billion consumers in 180 nations. It's already started to pay off: in 2010, Unilever delivered savings of €1.4 billion. "This year we expect savings of €1 billion," he added.

Polman seems to have seen off the worst of the economic crisis and is now ready to ratchet up growth without worrying too much about the sharp surge in food prices.

"I wouldn't worry about the commodity price surge for the next six months. But, after that, I would like to see the dust settle down. A 2-3 per cent food price rise is something that we are comfortable with because that means the farmer is going to get a decent price for his produce. But I do worry about the uncertain spikes in food prices," he added.

Polman is also aggressively pushing a new agenda at Unilever with the sustainability living plan, which seeks to balance the compulsions of growth with the responsibility of protecting the environment.

The plan has three objectives: first, slash the environmental impact of Unilever's products by half by reducing carbon emissions; second, ensure the group only sources sustainable agriculture supplies; and third, improve the health of a billion people worldwide.

"We have to take up the responsibility because the governments around the world have clearly failed to deliver on environmental goals," he added.

The plan will be implemented across all brands and will also cover countries such as India.

Unilever - which has 12 €1-billion brands, including Axe, Dove, Knorr, Lux and Lipton - has an environmental imprint for every single brand within its portfolio.

"We have built a database. There's a baseline for each brand and we are looking to trim the environmental impact of every one of them," added Harish Manwani, HUL chairman and Unilever's president for Asia, Africa and Central & Eastern Europe.

However, Polman felt that there was little merit in the Indian government's proposal to legislate that firms spend at least 2 per cent of their net profit on corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. "CSR has to be embedded in the company and its products. It has to be built into the business model," he said.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Mass vs Niche: Unilever's Keith Weed answers what's right! (CNBC-TV18)

On CNBC-TV18’s special show-Storyboard, Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer of Unilever spoke about the company's recent restructuring and future plans.
Below is the verbatim transcript of his exclusive interview with Anuradha SenGupta in Cannes. Also watch the accompanying video.
Q: We are talking on a day when we hear that Unilever has just announced huge broad-based restructuring of its business. Instead of categories like home, personal care and food, you have added refreshment too. How does that impact your work, and marketing function?
A: The rational behind is still the same with main focus on growth. We made a greater focus on our categories to ensure that we have greater expertise and a greater driver behind our brands. For me and the marketing function, we are going to be very much the glue that brings the whole of the marketing organization together and focus on the expertise and driving our marketing high.
Q: In India when we talk to Hindustan Unilever, there is this conversation from brand development those guys are brand building and that brand building is handling the local business and is responsible for sales in that area, whereas the innovation and what brands will come in is the function of development. How is this structure going to be impacted by this re-organization and what does this mean therefore for people who are working with you?
A: It doesn’t change at all the brand building and brand development. This is an organization where we can get the equity development expertise and the innovation and brand design etc and the brand development and then being really close to the local consumer.
At the end of the day, our business is built in one purchase at a time and one use at the time. So, we are going to be very close to the local markets, but also we are going to be at the leverage of the expertise of Unilever’s brand development skills across the markets. So the brand development and brand building are the main obkectives.
Q: What is the difference between the way you approach consumers in the emerging markets and developed world?
A: It’s very good question and you are right by saying that you are clubbing it altogether, you can’t is the answer. So we don’t club is altogether. We look at not even by country, but then we also look at consumers in clusters by their lifestyles. In fact a 14-year-old boy has more in common across Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Beijing than across the demographics in just, say, Mumbai.
So we are looking at cross sections people. This is the reason why I was saying about brand developments enables to look at target audiences, it appear, across areas. So we look at people in particular lifestyle segments. So things they engage with and then from that develop brand propositions for them.
Q: I find it interesting that most consumer goods companies are putting in a lot of effort to emphasize their commitment to the societies they belong. We heard Paul Polman speak often enough of sustainability and how it goes beyond just the environment and but looking at the environmental impact your businesses are having and yet, how does this become a differentiator for companies like yours because whether it is you, P&G or Nestle, everybody is talking the same language when it comes to the corporate brand that is being put forward and has being used to leverage product brands on?
A: Firstly, it’s great that big businesses are engaging sustainability agenda. I want the more here because we have got some big challenges in this world. Big companies taking part in missions to help the environment paves the way for betterment as challenges of the world rise. We will see more companies coming on board and more companies having sustainable mission.
Two things differentiate us: one, our DNA- the sort of values empowered by Unilever back from the late 1800s, with Lord Leverhulme and him building a company based on strong societal connection is very much in the DNA. It’s very comfortable to have a trajectory for us. Second, it is the different way we are looking right now at an environmental footprint is widely due to consumer use.
So, we are not just looking at the piece, we looking after the manufacturing and offices. We are looking at consumer use at consumer disposal and that whole life chain, the whole value chain piece is a differentiator.
Q: Do you as a marketing head for Unilever see the corporate brand as being integral to the marketing of your product brands because clearly there is a lot of effort to create and promote the corporate brand identity?
A: Absolutely, it’s a good question. The change in digital world left companies some what sort of behind the brands and it was hard for consumers to really engage with what is the brand behind the brands. Now in the digital world you can easily research very quickly and find out what is the company behind. So people are more interested.
People want companies like us to be transparent and they want to learn more about Unilever. So we are promoting the Unilever brand more. But it’s more trying to explain to a consumer who is this company behind the brands that you know now.
Q: Does it make a difference to the consumers when they are actually making purchase decisions?
A: It does. So the building of trust and confidence behind the brands in all the tests we have done have shown is a positive thing.
Q: Give me a sense of how you are looking at traditional media because television especially in the developed market seems to be doing very well?
A: Television is very important to us and will be for a long period of time. In fact the term traditional and digital is an unhelpful term and it’s one we all use. But traditional pulls together TV and cinema and radio and print and then on the other side on digital you have got mobile and search and e-commerce.
So these terms in themselves are helpful, but also unhelpful and when you look inside that you find the TV is still very important and will be and also not just TV, video. So if you think about it, what is TV? It’s a moving picture on a square screen. Actually if you think about it whether that’s going to be on your computer, on your mobile device, on iPad, it’s still a moving picture and the whole video form is something that consumer is engaged with significantly.
Q: You have talked about the fact that you see brands as media properties, you want to tell us what you are doing with the examples of some brands and how that has worked for Unilever?
A: Yes, it’s a new area that we are experimenting in over the last sort of year or so. The model of we call paid, owned and earned and so paid is buying advertising on TV or search whatever owned is our own site. So this is or and then the earned of course is a whole social space.
So in that middle piece what we are trying to do is find ways of engaging consumers and building content and in that we are creating partnerships with people who are engaged with our brand, so actually Axe in itself is an interesting brand.
But if I go then say down to Latin America we have Axe mobile phone. So we are using the brand as a way to engage with consumers and give consumers benefits and services beyond just the products that we sell.
Q: You have said that Unilever you would like to be ahead of the consumer. So that when they get there you are already there. Over the past year since you have been at the head of this function, do you think the job has become or the function has become more complicated or less complicated? More or less challenging?
A: The whole marketing area is incredibly exciting and it’s very challenging. It’s a great time to be in marketing because there are so many options. But you are completely right, you need to be sharp and keep ahead of all the changes. So I have teams who are going at sort of two speeds really: one, being competitive today and then other’s team worrying about how we are going to be competitive tomorrow.
Q: This is over USD 3 billion worth of marketing spend, isn’t it?
A: Yes. We are not short of resources. What we are like everyone else short of over opportunities and ideas etc and I am very greedy in that area. So I am trying to find new ways to innovate in this space. So you will continue to see us innovating.
Q: You can’t tell us about the new things?
A: When you see them you will recognize them

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Three Startups to Remember: Bubbli, Push Pop Press and Bluefin Delight at TED

Some of the biggest hits and touchpoints so far at this year’s TED Conference have come from tech start-up founders’ talks and show-stealing demos. Here are three companies you’ll likely be hearing about again:

In recent weeks multiple people have told me about Bubbli, saying it’s a see-it-to-believe-it experience. At TED on Wednesday the company gave the first public demo of its augmented reality application, which creates navigable photos.

Basically, Bubbli enables you to take a picture with your phone camera that shows not just what’s directly in front of you, but also what’s all around, above and below you. Then, other people can navigate the view of the world captured by that “bubble” by holding their own phones in front of them. When their phone is moved up or down or left or right, they see what you would have seen in that same direction.

At least that’s how I think it works. The Bubbli demo was a bit raw, in part due to connectivity issues.

Bubbli co-founder Ben Newhouse gained recognition for building the Yelp Monocle feature, which was the iPhone’s first augmented reality app. It uses the phone’s built-in compass to overlay Yelp restaurant ratings onto a camera view of the surrounding area.

Bubbli, which is funded by August Capital, describes its goal as to “build the matrix by defining a new medium to express the physical world around us.”

Meanwhile,Bluefin Labs co-founder Deb Roy used his full-length speaking slot to describe the process of surveilling his house with video cameras to capture the process of his son learning to speak. In order to analyze more than 90,000 hours of video, his MIT team created machine learning systems that helped trace the evolution of his son’s learning moment by moment.

Roy has now taken a leave of absence from MIT to extend these machine learning techniques to social media discussions of television programs. His company, Bluefin Labs, raised $6 million in Series A funding led by Redpoint Ventures.

In a previous conversation with NetworkEffect, Roy told me that Bluefin now analyzes 30 television channels 24/7 and computes their intersection with Twitter Firehose data, Facebook updates and blog posts in real time. Bluefin’s customers are big brand advertisers, agencies and media companies who want to better understand how ads and programs resonate with online audiences.

TED attendee and financial commentator Paul Kedrosky was effusive about Roy’s talk on Twitter, calling it the best ever. “Epic, moving and wondrous. Generated biggest standing O in ages,” Kedrosky tweeted.

And on Tuesday,Push Pop Pressshowed off a reimagined digital version of Al Gore’s book “Our Choice” built for the iPad and iPhone with interactive infographics, videos and voice overs. For instance, one demonstration of wind energy generation can be manipulated (as pictured) by a user blowing on the device’s screen. That was a big crowd pleaser.

TEDsters (you’ll notice they’re an effusive bunch) called the demo “mind-blowing” and “amazing.”

We’d written before about how Push Pop Press is highly anticipated given its founders’ background. Mike Matas, who showed off the app on stage at TED, was formerly a design prodigy at Apple.

Caveat: I am not at the conference myself, but have a press pass for the live stream. TED continues through Friday, and session videos will be posted online in the coming weeks.

Photo credits, via TED:

Terrence McArdle + Ben Newhouse, Inventors, in Session 5: Worlds Imagined, on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, at TED2011, in Long Beach, California. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Deb Roy, Cognitive scientist, in Session 4: Deep Mystery, on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, at TED2011, in Long Beach, California. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Mike Matas in Session 3: Mindblowing, on Tuesday, March 1, 2011, at TED2011, in Long Beach, California. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED


Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Apple set to unveil new iPad, with or without Jobs

Plenty has changed over the course of the year. The iPad became a bona fide smash, essentially creating the tablet category and triggering a wave of me-too products that are just starting to hit the market.

Now, as rivals Motorola and Research in Motion race to catch up, Apple itself is going through a transformation.

There is as much speculation about whether iconic Chief Executive Jobs will take the stage at Wednesday's event in San Francisco as there is about the new device.

Jobs traditionally launches major products with a pizzazz and style that reflect his eye for detail and design. But he took indefinite medical leave last month and Apple has not given details of the cancer survivor's medical condition.

His absence is bound to spark a fresh round of speculation on his condition. And his presence will be scrutinized equally closely for any signals on his health.

Many in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street doubt he will return to the company he co-founded in 1976.

In his absence, it is a good bet that Tim Cook, the company's operations chief and Jobs' heir apparent, or marketing head Phil Schiller, will lead Wednesday's show.

If Cook does appear, investors will scrutinize his performance. While Wall Street has grown comfortable with Cook's leadership, Wednesday would provide the first major test of his showmanship skills -- a key asset for marketing maestro Apple.

Regardless, the company is in little danger of losing its massive lead in the tablet market in the near term. With a big first-mover advantage, the company is rolling out the second-generation iPad just as most its rivals are bringing their first offerings to consumers.


The new model will sport the same 10-inch screen but should be lighter, thinner and faster, according to a plethora of analyst and blog reports. Apple is expected to add a camera to enable video chat using the FaceTime application.

Shares of some Taiwanese component makers rose in Asian trade on Wednesday ahead of the launch.

Camera module maker Genius Electronic Optical Co Ltd and lens manufacturer Largan Precision Co Ltd were starting new supply deals with Apple, two sources said in December, but neither could confirm for which product the modules were intended.

Genius jumped as much as 5.1 percent before ending 2.5 percent lower, while lens manufacturer Largan edged up 0.2 percent in a broader market down 1.2 percent. Hon Hai Precision, whose parent Foxconn manufactures Apple products, eased 1.8 percent.


Facebook Acquires Group Messaging Service Beluga

Facebook has added to its acquisition arsenal with the purchase of messaging service Beluga.

Beluga and Facebook will work together on "new and better ways to communicate and share group experiences," Beluga said in a note on its Web site. "We're excited to continue to build our vision for mobile group messaging as part of the Facebook team."

Beluga is "group messaging made easy," the company said. The free app - available for iOS and Android devices - is intended to help friends stay in touch on the go. "Use it to plan a night out or just share updates and photos," Beluga said.

Beluga is the brainchild of three former Google execs. Prior to founding Beluga, CEO Ben Davenport helped build Google AdSense, president Lucy Zhang worked on Google AdWords, Google News, and Google Docs, while CTO Jonathan Perlow served as senior staff engineer at Google, working on Gmail, Gmail Chat, and Mail Goggles. Perlow also served as a development lead at Microsoft, while Davenport helped build MSN Explorer.

"For now, Beluga will continue to function as it does today," Beluga said. "Your Beluga account and data will not be lost. We'll be providing more details on future plans for Beluga in the coming weeks."

The Beluga app has location-based functionality, which could be a good fit for Facebook's Places location feature. Last month, Facebook also added a "shared deals" option for developers, meaning users could share information about discounts with others on Facebook.

Earlier this year, Facebook acquired mobile ad start-up Rel8tion to improve hyper-local ad targeting to its 200 million-plus mobile subscribers.

Last year, it also bought startup Chai Labs, online file service, social check-in network Hot Potato, and recommendation engine nextstop.