FEATURE

More than fibres and eyeglasses

Michael Stevenson, director of marketing, Breault Research Organisation, says the optics industry has much to be proud of

As insiders, we understand the broad applications of optical technologies, the multi-disciplinary research approach that fosters innovation, and the industry intersections where new products in disparate fields are enabled by optical technologies. But if you think industry outsiders share this perspective with us, think again.

Ask a passerby to tell you what optical engineers do and you will invariably hear all about 'fibres and eyeglasses'. Ask a venture capitalist and you will either hear a screed on the meltdown of the telecommunications industry, or witness a sly grin form on the face of somebody who went short.

Michael Stevenson

The fact is most people outside of the optics industry have only an inkling about what optical engineers do and remain unaware that optical technologies are all around them - from the headlights and dashboard illumination in their cars to the charging lights in their electric toothbrushes.

Moreover, few have recognised the optics industry for producing the core technology behind many of today's hottest investments. Just a few years ago, this was underscored by several otherwise reputable financial management companies pushing optics and photonics funds consisting entirely of telecom companies. Today, you have to look hard to even find an optics fund, let alone one that's well balanced. That's a problem.

Optical engineers, molecular biologists and doctors have teamed up to produce clinical diagnostic devices, surgical instruments, and drug-discovery techniques that will make medical diagnoses and treatments easier, faster, cheaper, less painful, and altogether more effective.

Optics is the core enabling technology behind next-generation military and defence innovations that promise to keep our troops and borders safer, and to minimise collateral damage when battles must be fought - innovations such as non-lethal crowd-control systems, more accurate munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles, directed energy (laser) weapons, missile defence systems, and biological and chemical weapons sensing.

On the lighter side, product developers the world over are working on gadgets that promise to make information handling more convenient, more colorful and, ultimately, more fun. You can bet the all-in-one PDA-MP3 player-video projector-camera-phone of tomorrow will give the James Bond in all of us a case of techno-lust.

The optics industry is burgeoning with activity and new applications that make up a long list of hot topics. These topics should come to mind when anyone - technical background and investor savvy aside - hears the word 'optics'. But they're not and the industry's undeveloped branding and public relations strategy is to blame.

We do a fantastic job of keeping one another informed with industry trade magazines and journals. In fact, these publications break optics news three to five years ahead of mainstream publications. But industry outsiders don't read our trade publications for pleasure. They get their fill of the news from newspapers, radio, and television.

We have sophisticated processes and awards to recognise breakthroughs and the lifetime achievements of optical scientists. But without an equally sophisticated process for helping the public to take notice of these awards and understand why they are given, we only show that we have a penchant for self-aggrandising.

Optics industry leaders, including CEOs and society presidents, have a highly developed understanding of our industry and its brand essence. They are doing their best to increase knowledge and awareness of our industry. However, they get far fewer media inquiries than the thousands of engineers working on the next generation of optics-enabled products, and a lot of these engineers aren't prepared to field media inquiries.

Engineers can be a shy bunch and fast-talking reporters with notepads and tape recorders are intimidating to anyone. However, to really break out as a noteworthy industry, we've got to get everyone - from top-executives to engineers - onto the same page and excited about working with the media.

Strategic positioning, or branding, is one of the hallmarks of commodity products - laundry detergent, toothpaste, cleaning products, ad nauseam. But it is also applicable to niche products, services, and - as it pertains to us - entire industries.

Positioning is a statement about what you want stakeholders to think about you. It is about finding aspirational, yet ownable space, and voicing a powerful claim and compelling promise that the space is yours and you will maintain it - all the while differentiating your claim from your competition, maintaining relevance to your target audience, and remaining credible.

To best position the optics industry, we've got to understand its brand essence. Lucky for us, it's staring us in the face. The optics industry is the premier 'enabler'. No other industry has produced so many breakthroughs materialising as 'black boxes' inside of products that become the flagships of other industries. No other industry has gone unnoticed to the degree and duration the optics industry has.

Optics is the underpinning of an increasing number of devices that enrich our lives. When mainstream publications start hearing this message from all of us, consistently, we'll see public perception of the optics industry turn around. Aligning on a common message will make a common view of our industry possible, and bring visibility to the far-reaching applications of optics.


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