Branding is a word which is often perceived as the preserve of arty creative types paid too much money to come up with simple, even simplistic ideas. Moreover, with regard to firms which produce technology goods and whose focus is mired in the complexity of features and engineering, brand management is often very low on the food chain. However, the brand is as vital to any technology firm as it is to all firms, places, people even.
For technology firms to achieve sustainable and long-term competitive advantage a volte face is required with regard to how they position their products whilst they jockey for position in a crowded market. The short-term gains afforded by a myopic focus on technical specs and the scant regard paid to the emotional resonance which really gets people to buy your stuff means that many tech firms will not survive much more than the next ten years let alone successive generations.
The rule is that we buy on emotion and justify with logic. The logic is important and any help we can get to articulate that is helpful, but the real deal happens at gut level. Any firm worth its salt needs to have a clear idea of what this emotional stuff is, which really sets you apart and can be the lode star which assures customers of the consistency of the quality you offer.
The following describes the different considerations which are necessary for the successful branding of technology goods – and that is a whole lot more exciting than it sounds. The pre-supposition is that tech goods are branded differently to more common-or-garden consumer goods. Net, there are indeed important differences in the way one should develop, manage and nurture a technology brand as opposed to a common consumer product or service.
Consider those which might immediately spring to mind: Google, Apple, Cisco et al versus Quaker Oats, South Western Trains, De Beers’ diamonds. All are household names. The former are the winners in the tech universe which have successfully traversed the divide from tech firm to broad-consumer brand.
Essentially, the challenge for technology companies is both to sell to groups of consumers on the strength of features and at the same time establish the firm as a recognised company brand name which cuts through the incredible complexity of technological change and renders our purchase choice to buy (their products and services) a no-brainer – we just buy yours! It’s such a noisy and confusing world out there. For instance, many of us find the purchase of a mobile phone an obstacle course to translate the plethora of features into a simple choice: this phone or that? Oh hang on, what about that one?
It seems that mobile phone sales staff themselves are at odds with the marketing collateral they are required to display (“what do all those features really mean?” People ask themselves), which while it makes good sense to them, doesn’t help to sell the phone – beyond shoring up the image and credibility. So it helps, but not explicitly. The successful salesperson realises that mostly they only need to translate this stuff about memory etc into benefits in order for us to make our decision and walk away a satisfied purchaser. Remember: we buy on emotion and justify with logic. The brand name becomes a guarantee of quality, reliability and performance.
Consider Apple as an example of a brand which successfully cuts through the complexity of the market and gives us consumers an anchor of stability. Therefore, the battle for mindspace is as relevant to technology firms as it is for any other. Sustainable competitive advantage demands it.
Time is a potent factor. There is a definite rapport between the sophistication-level of the component parts of a product (Cisco’s products are packed full of hi-tech components); the speed of change in the industry; and the way the product is subsequently branded. Consider how technology/IT products evolve very quickly; porridge oats stays essentially the same. This speed of change has crucial implications for the way you would seek to build/develop and manage the brand.
Some might think that this is at odds with what branding is fundamentally about – building consistency. Not so, it’s really about considering technology branding as being on a different time-scale, where time moves much more quickly: all brands change and alter according to the change in their environment. So your data-mining app is the hare to the tortoise of porridge oats.
Taking this as an example, although Quaker Oats still adheres strongly to its original value set, today’s consumers tend to buy it because of Quaker Oats’ fit with consumers’ more “modern” values around health, lifestyle, simplicity and assurance in a complex world – rather than on 400 year-old Quaker attitudes, values and precepts. Would you buy this porridge because it reminds you that “truth is to be found within us, not handed down by authorities outside us” or because of the simplicity of the product, and even the way it renders a complex, confused world simpler, more grounded, more honest even. Perhaps these are not so very far from Quakerism than at first glance they appeared. By contrast, the latest i-phone is selling well based on the changes in the feature set which have evolved over the last 12 months, to the extent that it is designed for uploads – in sync with the speed of change – so that you yourself become the change: you are empowered, dynamic, at-the-top-of-your-game; another great reflection perhaps of the brand you want to project to the world and definitely resonating at an emotional level.
The faster the speed of change in the market and the greater the complexity of components that can be recognised by the consumer – or certain groups of consumers such as early technological adopters – then the more convoluted the job of managing the brand.
The marketing to the early adopters of technology brands, requires brand managers firstly to emphasise the new feature set and allow these early adopters to articulate how these enhance performance whilst enabling them to live a tech-lifestyle better. Brand managers must then move the onus of the brand onto the benefits: to highlight how your life will be enabled. This shifts the brand towards the larger body of the market, who buy the tech product based on benefits and the more emotional twang which resonates within us. This latter area breaks away from apparently purely physical or visible functionality and drifts into the fuzziness of emotionality. That is not to say that early adopters of technology live dispassionate lives in Geekdom. Throughout the A-Z of technology brand management, these buyers are conscious of the exclusive club-like status that ownership of one brand or another affords them just as much as technophobes sport nice shirts and say “I don’t do technology”: so, I can be the geek with the latest phone and I am still unconsciously aware of the message this sends out to my world, as much as the mainstream adopter who accessories their look with specific technologies. Ironically then, mobiles have become the most obvious fashion differentiator.
Technology firms fight to differentiate themselves just as much as any other firm. The thing about your competitors which is rather galling for all producers these days is that your competitors can imitate your functionality in a nano-second. But what they can’t imitate are the emotional vibes which your brand resonates with. If you can establish this in the minds of people – whilst maintaining the performance and functionality which is expected of you, then your chances of competitive advantage are more greatly enhanced.
Long-term competitive advantage requires a marriage of vision and technology. It is imperative that tech firms have a means to differentiate themselves. Technology firms can be side-tracked by the speed of change themselves and so need to take pains to dream about their vision for themselves several years down the road; several generations even. A differentiation trajectory enables tech firms to maintain a weather eye on long-term vision whilst scrutinising new features. The firm chooses a unique path for the brand vision which, over time, serves to put distance between you and your competitors. Apple’s “usability and superior customer experience” have served to inform the product design and differentiate one from the other and others as well. This is analogous to all firms and even individuals: successful people have a strong vision for themselves. There is nothing to say that this vision cannot change. Indeed it must change in most cases. But your vision serves as a stake in the ground, a place to aim for and this functions to drive the innovations inside the company forward by giving everyone a measure of success; a language to communicate inside and out; and an expectation around how features in new products evolve and are positioned. The vision makes choices compelling and renders the choice easy. Simply put, the vision becomes the brand.
Sony Ericsson has sixty three phones in its current product range. They are called things like K320i or W710i or C702. Meaningless to the uninformed. But ultimately very meaningful in the context of the house brand. They are highly-differentiated from LG and Samsung – other potent brands. The consistency that Sony Ericsson can achieve comes from its most deep and core values which are sublimated in the purpose “energising people’s experiences”. This is the anchor and the anchor chain runs right through the business to all those phones above: they must be the embodiment of the core values. Thus, the core values function to screen ideas and at the same time provide a bar that product developers must stretch to reach in their designs and the myriad functionality they choose to include: they say to themselves “okay, is my feature set hitting the hot buttons that the vision describes and if not then how can I achieve this?”
The brand is therefore both a force for generating sales to external customers like you and me as it is a force for consistency and a highly-motivating shared vision inside the business.
Another consideration is around how typically many tech products actually bundle several brands into one: so-called Ingredient Branding. So Intel Inside is Intel’s core technology which, when integrated into other lesser known brands, has the power to sell the latter to great effect. It might though be cripplingly expensive for the host. Intel will sell your product, but at a price.
Conflicts of interests caused by ingredient branding are extremely prevalent. Vodaphone trying to strong-arm Motorola with a Windows Mobile operating system. Less contentious has been LG’s alliance with Prada containing Flash Macromedia, Scheider-Kreuznach lens – marketed at the time as “the first complete touch interface”. Here the halo effect was perfect – coming out at the same time as the film The Devil Wears Prada.
The key challenge for tech firms is to marry engineering minds, who are the drivers and leaders of these firms, with a mindset which embraces the emotional fuzziness of really effective brand management. Engineers tend to see the world through their eyes of course and so adhere to the belief that what makes them buy products will turn everyone else on in the same way. Feeds and Speeds (product features…) are not going to differentiate you in a market already crowded with technology. Superb branding segues into superb product design so that the “what’s under the hood” stays firmly under the hood and is not displayed for all to see. Think Apple and Bang and Olufsen: the aesthetic is vital, very Now and accessible by the wider market. The art to achieving this, particularly in a B2B market, will be to summarise benefits regardless of the market. So if a large multi-national UN agency is buying SAP for example, how then is it sold to the various customer categories within this organisation – from pay-roll and accountants through to people in the field for example? The need therefore is to calculate the features and benefits as appropriate to different customer groups, which are aligned with the brand’s core values and purpose.
In conclusion, branding is an activity at the centre of all firms regardless of the nature of your products. Technology firms must be very aware that the world they inhabit is often not only populated by people like themselves and that the brand – and your emotional values – will set you apart from your competitors, appeal deeply to all your customers and is absolutely fundamental to your success.
Julian French is a brand trainer based in the UK and Paris, France with over 15 years’ experience delivering brand training solutions to organisations and individuals world-wide. His diverse clients include UN agencies, international banks and insurance firms, public sector organizations, technology firms, and marketing firms to name but a few.