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Sony Sells Itself for a Change

By Cliff Edwards For years, Sony has been the kinder, gentler king of electronics. The Japanese outfit contended that consumers already recognized its TVs, MP3 and DVD players, and other products as superior, so it had no need to promote its products. In Sony execs' eyes, the company name spoke for itself.

No more. Under an onslaught of competition from Korean and Chinese electronics manufacturers, as well as new entries by PC makers such as Dell (DELL), Gateway (GTW), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Sony (SNE) is finally coming out swinging. Faced with new rivals, increasingly short product cycles, and fierce pricing pressures, Sony announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that it's adopting a new motto, "Sony, Like No Other."

Sony's goal: Convince consumers that it alone is the most innovative gadget maker in the world. Execs kicked off a news conference with a dance routine by four of its QRIO human-like robots, followed by previews of products due out this year, including a superthin notebook PC, a 12-inch TV panel that can access the Internet from anywhere in the world and play video and sound from your PC hardware, and a five-megapixel digital camera the size of a deck of cards.

SPREADING THE WORD. The products were cool, but the presentation itself stole the show. For the first time, Sony executives have openly acknowledged that it may be falling behind in perceptions that Sony is an innovator. Companies like Apple Computer (APPL) have pretty much taken over the MP3-player market, while Korean giant Samsung has made significant strides in some TV categories. As Dell, Gateway, and even Motorola (MOT) enter the crowded $100 billion consumer-electronics market, Sony Electronics President Dick Komiyama says his outfit needs to do more.

This year, Sony will be consolidating its North American offices in San Diego, bringing PCs, monitors and TVs, and digital-imaging operations together on a single, massive campus. Komiyama says it's essential that Sony's often at-odds factions learn to work together and give it one voice.

To get the message out that Sony is indeed like no other, it plans to boost its marketing budget significantly and blitz consumers with TV and print ads. Says Komiyama: "Despite the unnerving competition from both familiar faces and new faces entering the market, American consumers prefer Sony over other brands."

Those are fighting words. But for Sony to remain on top, Komiyama's moves must demonstrate that they reflect more than just wishful thinking. Edwards, a correspondent in BusinessWeek's San Mateo bureau, is covering the Consumer Electronics Show

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