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Monday, July 28, 2008

Brand Marketing in High Technology

I recently met a person who reminded me of many of the common errors and failed strategies I see in high technology marketing. Many of these failures revolve around the interpretation of the word “brand,” and how if managed properly managed, it can possess magical properties.

This person was a very experienced marketer who had just joined a SEMI member company from an ad agency. This person was very impressive--clearly competent and creative, perhaps even charismatic. But he/she had no experience in semiconductor manufacturing and I didn’t sense an affinity for the technology, industry and product issues that would most impact his/her company and career.

Being from an agency, this person knew how to promote and articulate the value of big, impactful and professional marketing communications. They seemed to be one of those agency-type people who can sell ideas--big ideas. They offer a seemingly new way to compete in the marketplace, based on ingenuity, cleverness, some call it marketing. These are the people who are able to get the ear of the CEO and suddenly get a massive budget for a huge campaign, such as TV advertising or massive trade show spend. You don’t see these kinds of folks in semiconductors anymore, but you see them all the time in computers and IT, and they were abundant during the dot com era.

Their arguments and experience--their frame of reference--usually revolves around the idea of brand. Concepts like brand positioning, brand awareness, and brand equity dominate their conversation. These are important and useful concepts but the people I am talking about are able to use these arguments to captivate a boardroom and justify significant new budget. They are often effective in utilizing solid research into customer insights and their campaigns are usually bold, beautiful and expensive.

These aren’t the people, however, who I see become CEOs or survive long at the VP of marketing level. In fact, when I see the step-function increase in marketing spend—the huge product launch or identity campaign-- I almost am certain that someone will lose their job in the 12-24 months.

I have seen it dozens of times. Hot shot joins company with cool marketing resume: maybe Apple or Proctor and Gamble background or from an agency who did wild stuff for someone like Sun, HP or Intel. They are hired because “they know marketing” and have been previously successful and have clear experience in managing a large budget or successful campaign. Together with an agency, they are able to successfully frame the company’s challenges into a brand issue—not product, or price, sales, or technology or even a promotion issues—but a brand issue requiring a new a massive campaign or new corporate identity.

Invariably what happens is the campaign or new identity is launched with great fanfare to great applause. It may even get associated with a successful jump in sales for a quarter or two or three. But at some point the business cycle turns or the competition catches up. Memories of the big campaign or product launch fade. The issues that again dominate the critical business meetings are about features, technologies, cost, and price. Talk about brand fades, the brand magic disappears, the marcom budget gets cut.

What happens to the lead marketer, the hot shot, in this scenario? Sometimes they get blamed for the eventual business turn. Sometimes they leave to pursue a fresh opportunity and a new budget (often with an agency). Sometimes their relationships with the product people and other folks in the business--who resented the new ideas, the big campaign and the access to the CEO—get so strained that they get shown the door.

Rarely do they survive. When they do survive, sometimes they become the “make no waves” cynic, the obstructionist who’s always quick to say “been there, done that” and sucks the life out every meeting they attend.

Believe me. People in high-tech who get their companies to do big campaigns on behalf of a brand just don’t stay long.

I suppose that sometimes they grow and mature, bring new energies to new problems, bring a detailed commitment to optimizing the full marketing mix. But you don’t see those people very much. They don’t talk about brand. They talk about the detailed, complicated stuff that it takes to build and ship a product. These are the people that VPs and CEOs

I don’t why this person I met reminds of those marketers and agency types who are quick to justify investments in concepts as ethereal as brand, but he/she did. I really think great marketers talk and represent their product as complicated, multifaceted, sophisticated, changing things that meet customer needs. Not a brand.

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