Six Terribly Boring Ways to Make Your Technology Brand Sizzle

ID University BrandSimple brand strategies often neglected by even the most earnest technology marketers.

Co-written by Dave Wenger and Dave Shaw in 2003.

pdf here: sixways

There are a thousand theories for how to strengthen your technology brand, and most of them have worked at one time for some company, or they wouldn’t have found their way into someone’s book on brand building.

But how much of what you read in the marketing press is really applicable to your industry, particularly if you are a technology or manufacturing company? Can the lessons learned from Starbucks brew success in the IC equipment business, for example? The answer is both yes and no.

Over the years we’ve consulted with dozens of companies, such as JSR Micro, KLA-Tencor and Samsung Austin Semiconductor, that operate well beyond the “fun zone” of brand marketing. Our approach is based on integrated marketing—the principle that “everything communicates.” In other words, there is nothing your company does that does not have either an internal or external impact on the way your brand is considered and understood. So while that includes the traditional disciplines of public relations, advertising, and market research, we also look at business approaches, policies and employee behaviors. Everything that creates the brand experience for customers and employees.

Our clients are typically substantial, established manufacturers and technologists who make products that 90 percent of consumers never know exist, but that are vital to a select group of corporate customers. We’re talking about emulsions, wafers, testing equipment, highly specialized software, and other products never found “at a store near you.”

Awakening the brand within.

Frankly, many of these organizations do not belly up to the marketing table willingly. Engineers and scientists tend to wish the world would just recognize the brilliance of their product approach without the annoying distraction of public relations, brand building and marketing efforts.

But sooner or later…bang! The crashing arrival of a new market reality awakens the sleeping giant. It is time to get serious about public image.

For Dresser Wayne, a $400 million manufacturing company, it was the realization that although they had pioneered most of the major innovations in their field over the last 20 years, including the pay-at-the-pump credit card reader and Mobil Speedpass™, they rarely got the recognition they deserved, even from their best customers.

Other management teams find that after mergers and acquisitions, they are left with a mixed bag of services, product names and business approaches. As one executive told us, “We woke up one day and realized we couldn’t easily describe in one sentence what we do.”

Avoiding the Wallflower Syndrome.

Our work with these suddenly-brand-conscious manufacturers suggests there are a few simple principles that ensure a smoother entry into the world of competitive market positioning. And most of these ideas are focused on avoiding what we call “The Wallflower Syndrome.”

To anyone who remembers what it’s like to be a 14-year-old, this concept is easy to understand. The ungainly wallflower at the school dance typically feels more comfortable applying his or her social skills in a more low-key manner. In other words, it just feels more comfortable operating out of the limelight. Later in life we call this “having substance over style.”

But at some point, our young teen realizes all the action is out there on the dance floor. Others are having more fun, and getting recognition for it, too!

At this point in our analogy, the warning flag goes up. Jumping from the shadows directly into the center of the dance floor may look cool in reruns of Saturday Night Fever, but in real life the results may be embarrassing or awkward. Everyone will be looking! One misstep could be socially fatal.

Such are the risks of the marketer seeking greater market exposure. The strategies employed by a Pepsi or Apple Computer make for good reading. These approaches can also provide a long-term glimpse at what is possible through an integrated communications approach including a thoughtful brand strategy, public relations and paid media. Be careful, however, about building a tactical program based on what appears to work for these super-branders.

You could find yourself in the middle of the dance floor, with the whole world watching…and suddenly realize your organization isn’t ready for all that attention.

The boring work of strengthening your technology brand.

We live and work in the world of integrated communications. Our expertise and experience includes public relations, corporate identity, advertising, employee communications and brand strategy development. It is a field founded on the religion of creativity and imagination.

So why do we dare say there is boring hard work involved in building a technology brand that sizzles? Because the exciting, imaginative stuff is all that most authors in our field want to write about. New product names, high-profile press exposure, and fresh promotional approaches— pick up any marketing or PR magazine and read all about it.

Few talk about the plodding, sometimes tedious planning and implementation that goes into building a brand that is authentic and enduring. Until now, that is.

Without further ado, and based on more than 30 years of combined experience working with technology and manufacturing businesses, we present our Six Terribly Boring Ways to Make Your Technology Brand Sizzle.

#1 Read Your Business Plan

Remember your business plan? Sure you do; your executive team probably spent months crafting it. You wouldn’t want all of that hard work to go to waste, now that you’re launching the company into the marketing spotlight.

A well-written business plan should provide a platform for your brand-building efforts. In it, you have identified your competitive environment, and outlined your core strengths relative to the competition. The goals, strategies and tactics stand as a rallying cry for the entire organization. Forward into battle!

Or…maybe your business plan isn’t that actionable. Or easy for a frontline employee to relate to. Or even understand.

After buying themselves back from Halliburton in 2001, the executive team at Dresser, Inc. was scrambling to build a go-forward plan for the new company, which then consisted of four separate business units that had never before worked together as a single entity.

The Dresser business plan was developed quickly and under pressure, and Executive Vice President Jim Nattier and his team were trying to figure out how to rally the company around a document that was admittedly complicated and filled with abstract business speak.

Jim plopped the half-inch black binder on the table in front of us. “Give us something our customers and employees can get excited about.”

The result was the Dresser Destiny™ program, a simply worded four-step approach to business operations, targeted to mid-level managers and staff. Each of the Destiny Principles was matched to specific actions, measurements and rewards, so employees knew exactly what was expected of them, and how they would benefit in return.

More importantly, the Dresser Destiny campaign, which was launched through personal presentations by Dresser managers to all 9,000 employees worldwide, helped define what it meant to be part of the new Dresser team. Helping to build a new culture for the new organization, almost overnight.

Sorting through and simplifying the Dresser business plan was tedious work. Sending executives on the road with PowerPoint slides and collateral materials to offices in seven countries on four continents was time consuming and expensive. But without Dresser Destiny breathing life into the business plan, the organization would not have been prepared to perform under the spotlight once the new company and positioning were introduced to the marketplace.

Which leads us to our next boring directive.

#2 Go visit your office in Prague.

Before the Dresser Destiny program was unveiled, our research team traveled to every Dresser office, from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Voghera, Italy. From Malmo, Sweden, to Waukesha, Wisconsin Our goal was to talk to at least 20% of employees worldwide, giving them the opportunity to literally participate in the creation of their own company destiny. In reality, we were testing and creating buy-in with the same visit.

Listening to employees serves two purposes. First of all, they really do know some things about the organization that management may not have perceived. They are, after all, dealing with the day-to-day issues of product development, engineering, operations, sales and customer service.

Secondly, the simple act of asking for employee involvement helps smooth the path of acceptance. In a conference hall in Houston, 400 employees of Altra Energy Technologies were introduced to the company’s new branding program—one element of which included wall-size posters of their new ad campaign. A mid-level Altra employee approached a member of our consulting team with a beaming smile. “I’m just amazed at how you talked to us, and then came back a few weeks later with something that describes us so perfectly.”

Of course, the real work of developing the brand strategy had involved customer interviews, competitive analyses, and numerous management strategy sessions. But the secret for this employee was the fact that we had begun by asking her what she thought.

Later, when national media and the trade press picked up the new messaging in their coverage of Altra, the language and promises of the campaign rang true to both employees and customers.

Contrast that to the sales person of an international laboratory equipment manufacturer, who pushed his new business card across the table to a long-time customer and said, “Don’t worry about this new name and logo, we’re the same old company you’ve always done business with.”

What an opportunity lost! All because someone hadn’t taken the time to involve this key employee in the process of building the new company brand.

#3 Slow down already.

When a national or international technology or manufacturing company decides to up the ante and become a more active brand-builder, there may be few apparent constraints. Funds for new marketing and public relations activities can generally be found in a Fortune 1000 company. So full speed ahead, right?

Our experience is that such an aggressive attitude can backfire. Often, organizations need an adjustment period, moving from marketing crawl to a walk, then finally to a full-speed run.

Some of this is simply showing respect to your own company culture. Radical change sounds exciting in a business case study, but it can feel artificial and forced in many corporate environments.

We’ll never forget the telling moment during one re-branding effort for a high-tech equipment manufacturer. As presidents of each of the company divisions sat glowering around the conference table, the CEO unveiled his new strategy for uniting the various divisions of the company under a new global brand name.

One of the assembled executives raised his hand in the air. “I’ve been wearing this company ring for 30 years…[dramatic pause]…and now you’re telling me I have to throw it away?”

Back to square one. After several months of further work, including interviews and focus groups with division management and staff, the plan was reintroduced—this time with nods of approval all around the table (including from the lord of the ring).

Give your organization time to understand the new program, adjust priorities, implement tactics to support the brand-building effort, and generally “get on board.” You’ll end up needing the extra time to do it right anyway, so you might as well make it part of your program.

#4 Read some history.

Nothing is more boring than history. Just ask any junior high school student. But the company marketer attempting to explore new brand territory must not ignore the organization’s past experience.

Many a brilliant re-branding effort has been scuttled by lack of acceptance, belief or engagement on the part of managers and employees. One of the challenges faced by Jim Nattier and his executive team at Dresser was a company history that reflected a series of mergers, acquisitions and reorganizations. Why should the staff believe that this time was really about building a long-term brand and market position?

Every company comes with a past, and like it or not, the collective memory can speak louder than your re-branding rah rah.

The director of human resources of a Houston-based temp staffing company sat down with us at the beginning of a brand revitalization effort instituted by their new president. A once-vibrant market leader, the company had languished over ten years of ownership by a foreign holding company.

“I used to know what this company stood for,” the HR director said, “But now our mission statement is just a poster on the lobby wall.”

After uncovering evidence that this fuzziness was rampant throughout the company, we had to advise their new president to put his external branding campaign on hold, until the organization could rebuild trust and clarity within its own ranks. To his credit, he took our advice. A year later, this company was on the mend and better prepared to reposition itself among customers, prospects and the national media.

#5 Pick your friends carefully.

Everyone wants to be liked, perhaps no one more than our under-appreciated wallflower. But there is another lesson to be learned from the junior high dance comparison. The adventurous young soul who finally makes his or her way onto the dance floor will soon discover that not all partners are equally appealing.

As a marketer, you may only want to dance with a select few customers. While getting a major PR hit in a national publication can be a real ego trip, gaining too much attention in the wrong places may actually be detrimental to your brand-building efforts.

Such was the case with JSR Micro, a division of the $2-billion-in-sales JSR Corporation based in Tokyo. The company manufactures high-end chemical materials for semiconductor manufacturers, a very exclusive and highly competitive field.

Nobu Koshiba and Eric Johnson, JSR Micro’s top executives, believed the company had much to lose by becoming too visible in the business and trade press.

“Our customers expect and receive a very high level of service,” explains Nobu, “But we cannot offer that customized development path to everyone who wants it. If JSR Micro makes a big splash in the press, we run the risk of disappointing a great many prospects who simply are not right for our approach.”

Working with Eric and his marketing team, a PR plan was developed that de-emphasized press releases and product announcements, and focused instead on positioning Nobu, Eric, and other JSR Micro scientists and engineers, as trusted and respected experts in the industry. Missy Bindseil, our colleague and JSR Micro’s PR consultant, spends her time creating one-on-one opportunities to connect with high-level reporters and editors, rather than sending out “blast faxes” with unsolicited news.

The result is a program that feels much more comfortable to JSR Micro execs, while fitting into their brand-building approach, reaching the dance partners who really matter to their business.

#6 Don’t be so boring.

It is vital that marketers pay attention to the day-to-day realities of the organization, which isn’t always scintillating stuff that impresses your friends at the executive club. But let’s not get overly pragmatic here. There is an element of business building that is all about vision, inspiration and forward-thinking-ness. Don’t leave out all of the fun.

In our early sessions with JSR Micro executives and employees we asked them to define their company personality, with the aid of various photos and other prompts. As expected, we heard about things like exactness, reliability and attention to detail. But there were also allusions to grace, beauty and balance.

One senior-level Japanese executive held up a photo of a starfish and a deep blue sky. “I don’t know what I like about this photo, but there is something serene and graceful.” Others repeated his sentiments in different ways, even though this group of mostly chemists and engineers were hardly the type you would suspect of harboring any sense of style or appreciation for abstract imagery.

Such subtle nuances of brand can be lost if we boil down the marketing message to a series of charts, measurements and positioning platforms. Companies, even very large companies, exhibit human traits that are perceived and regarded by both internal and external audiences.

In the design of the JSR Micro corporate identity, typefaces, colors, shapes and photography are all fashioned to reflect an organization of scientific exactness, reliability, and yes, a certain sense of finesse and style. The resulting look helps distinguish JSR Micro as a technology company with a premium customer approach and a high-performance product line. And there is nothing boring about it.

So we conclude this article right back where we began. There are thousands of theories about how to build a strong brand. You’ve just read one more. As you suspected already, there is no template that will feel exactly right for your company without some tailoring.

Listen to your organization, respect the value of your culture, be smart about your objectives, then use the tools of research, market strategy, public relations, and advertising — all elements of an integrated communications program — to fashion an approach that works for your company.

Not all of that is gee-whiz exciting. But the satisfaction of strengthening your technology brand is a feeling that can’t be beat.

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