asked brand experts Jim Gregory, CEO of CoreBrand; Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries; and Hayes Roth, CMO of Landor Associates, to comment on the challenges IBM Corp. has faced over the past century, what has given its brand strength and how it is positioned for the future.
BtoB: What are some of the challenges IBM has faced over the years?
They've had pretty much everyone in the industry go after them. There was a time when people thought they would be on the rocks. (Former IBM Chairman) Lou Gerstner had a major impact in transforming who they were, back when they were in danger of becoming irrelevant. He did it by going back to customers and becoming customer-focused.
Leaders never face challenges as long as the categories they dominate remain strong. When the punch-card category declined, IBM faced a serious challenge, which it solved by moving rapidly to dominate the punch-card replacement—the mainframe computer. When the mainframe computer declined, IBM stagnated until it developed a replacement for the mainframe computer, which is its technology consulting business.
BtoB: What has made the IBM brand so enduring?
They have adapted to different environments. When they sold off their PC division to Lenovo, they did it decisively and they did it with a plan. It didn't really hurt them that much. That is the same thing they have done throughout the years. They have always been adaptable to the new environment.
This is a company that continues to transform and reinvent itself. You have to reinvent yourself to be a great brand. When we talk about really great brands, it's about balancing constancy and change. Apple, Coke, IBM, GE—these are brands that continue to reform themselves into brand ideas that are relevant for today, yet they never lose touch with where they came from.
BtoB: How is IBM as a brand positioned for the future?
IBM has a very strong position as the dominant company in its category. Will technology consulting ever decline? And what would replace it? It's almost impossible to predict the future, so no one really knows.
They're in pretty good shape. To be the No. 3 brand (on Millward Brown's “BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands” list) when you're 100 years old is a pretty good testament to the strength of the brand and how they are positioned. Their challenge is—how do you stay differentiated and relevant in changing times?
BtoB: Is Smarter Planet the way to keep going? Will they continue as primarily a consulting brand or will they be known for putting in systems?
I think their vision for the future is not entirely clear. They had a big deal about the “Jeopardy!” Watson Challenge—that was fascinating and a human interest story; but what is the point of that? If they're trying to make that into the vision for the future—that robotics will play a bigger role—how do they make that practical? I think they are vulnerable right now, but I think they have shown the ability to adapt in a changing world. They are not sitting around waiting for the world to change them; they are interested in showing how they are changing the world.