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From the Olympics, to Formula One, to Rugby Union, you would be hard pressed not to see the Panasonic brand on show, especially inside the Sydney Olympic Stadium where the Japanese technology giant has recently installed two of the biggest display screens in world.

In Australia, the company has just had their best year ever. And in the brutally competitive consumer electronics market, they are seen as a real threat with senior management at both Samsung and Sony confessing to ChannelNews recently that Panasonic is the brand that they see as their “most challenging” competitor in 2009.

“They are a real threat and are growing by the month” said a senior Samsung executive. 

According to Panasonic Japan executives, the Australian subsidiary of Panasonic is one of the most successful “and profitable” in the world and as king of the plasma TV market, Panasonic has plenty to prove these days. Faced with an onslaught of competition from the rival LCD camp, Panasonic executives have been working hard to dispel any claims that their products are somewhat inferior to the best LCD offerings.

Last year, Panasonic caused a major upheaval in the flat panel TV world when they rolled out TV commercials that say that plasma TV technology was perceived by consumers as being superior to LCD TV.


This really got up the noses of senior executives at Sony where CEO Carl Rose unleashed his PR minders to defend his Bravia LCD brand. Samsung also threatened legal action for misleading comments but their efforts came to nothing.

But by this stage the damage was done and the battle all but won, with Panasonic plasma sales rocketing and retailers like Harvey Norman and JB Hi Fi telling ChannelNews that Panasonic’s campaign using Olympic sprinter Matt Shirvington, had worked for both them and the vendor.

On several occasions during 2008, Panasonic was the number 1 flat panel display brand in Australia with a mix of both plasma and LCD TVs. And in a clear dig at Sony who has resorted to outsourcing the manufacture of their Bravia TV panel to the likes of Sharp, LG and Samsung, Panasonic is quick to point out that their TV panels are manufactured in-house.

 

In addition, Panasonic has also managed to snare the entire 120 strong Pioneer Kuro research and development team that turned the Kuro plasma display into what has been described as “The best TV screen in the world today”.The inclusion of technology developed by the original Kuro team is expected to show up in new Panasonic plasma and LCD TV display screens later this year, along with new energy saving technology that will see power usage reduced by up to 40 percent while not compromising screen quality.

The move by Panasonic into the premium end of the consumer electronics market is set to be more of a threat to Sony than Samsung or LG, say analysts who are concerned that the financially-strapped Sony will not be able to hold their premium pricing policy going forward.

Last year, Panasonic has proved that they can deliver a premium product and sell them in bulk with the launch of its $2,500 Blu-ray digital video recorder which is still in big demand in the market today. 

Panasonic Australia’s fortunes started to change when it appointed Steve Rust as Managing Director Australia in March 2006. Rust, the former Managing Director of Ingram Micro and former executive at both Apple and Toshiba, immediately set about restructuring the company.

Steve Rust Panasonic CEO

A key focus was marketing. So after the appointment of Gemma Lemieux, who had previously worked at Panasonic as group manager – mobiles within the company’s business systems group, the company’s marketing operations experienced a total overhaul.

Within months, long time advertising agency George Patterson had been dumped and replaced by the Campaign Palace. She also bought in a new research company who quickly identified that the Panasonic brand was better known among an older Australian audience than younger, high spending Australians.

It was only a week ago that a senior executive at a major consumer electronics company commented to ChannelNews “I don’t know where Panasonic is getting the money from, but they are popping up everywhere.”

While Panasonic Australia is selling container loads of plasma TVs, the company has also been successful in the Blu-ray market, thanks to its high-end recorders and home theatre products.

 

The company is also as much about school projectors, intelligent whiteboards, and Tough notebooks as they are in commercial display and content systems that go into shopping centres, hotels and hospitals.

Currently, Panasonic’s commercial display division headed by Mark Deere-Jones is responsible for 15 percent of Panasonic Australia’s revenue and significantly more in profits.

“This is an important division for Panasonic due in part to the growth opportunities in area’s like education. Recently we won a major education contract after we had spent months doing research at Cromer Primary School in NSW  We needed to understand what a teacher wanted in an interactive whiteboard. We then went back to Japan and had a whiteboard designed that was eventually chosen for use in more than 12,000 NSW schools.” said Rust.

Another key area of growth for Panasonic is digital cameras, with the company determined to lift their share of the Australian market for both digital still and camcorders. “We are investing significantly in the Panasonic Lumix brand with simple clear marketing,” said Lemieux.

“One of the key benefits of the Lumix range is ease of use and the use of proven digital camera technology that is made from the ground up by Panasonic. We make the memory and the technology in a Panasonic digital camera in our own factories and this is important to both us and the consumer who buy our products. Key to our marketing success is the communication that Panasonic cameras are easy to use while still being packed with digital camera features. The name Lumix and our Intelligent Auto systems that automatically adjust the camera based on the conditions and the feature sets that the user wants is critical as all that consumers want is great images and an easy way to use their camera,” concluded Lemieux.

Last year, Panasonic took over 100 retailers to Japan to see their manufacturing operations first-hand. This included dealers from both the mass retail channel and the specialist channel.

“This was a big investment by Panasonic Australia. However, it was important as we believe that we have the right product range now to become a key player in the digital camera market,” said Paul Reid, the Director for Consumer Products at Panasonic.

In March 2009, Panasonic captured 10 percent of the digital still market in Australia. And as Panasonic launches their new range of flat panel TVs and related home entertainment products in the next couple of weeks, consumers can expect to see extensive marketing of Panasonic VIERA technology and their LUMIX digital camera brands.

“Our VIERA technology, which is now built into both our TV display screens, Blu-ray, and DVD players, allow consumers to easily link their LUMIX digital camera to these devices. They can now easily slot in their SD card to a device to quickly watch a movie or view images that they have shot. All this can be controlled from a Panasonic remote”.

And in another move that is set to benefit Panasonic camera owners, the company will be rolling out TV panels and players that include content widgets. These are icons that allow consumers to access over the Internet content it will give them access to Google Picasa, a digital image editing and management package.

Overall, CEO Steve Rust is confident that Panasonic Australia have the right products for 2009. And despite an economic downturn, he is confident that his management team will deliver success across both appliances and consumer electronics, as well as in the fast growing Pro AV market.

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