Panasonic's Toughbook PC muscles into niche

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Roughly 12 years ago, what's now known as Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. introduced the Toughbook, a rugged laptop that could endure the rigors of out-of-the-office conditions ranging from construction sites to ambulances. But it wasn't until January 1997 that Panasonic really looked at the federal government as a prime audience for this laptop line.

"The company had made some in-roads into the state and local government markets a few years before, and the Toughbook was just starting to gain recognition for its unique benefits," said Jan O'Hara, senior director of federal sales for the Panasonic Toughbook. "I was hired to help develop a federal government sales organization and set up a vertical structure to identify significant segments we could sell to."

At the federal level, the military was the most obvious prospective market for the Toughbook. Today, the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps are the company's biggest federal customers, and it has built vertical channels to market and sell to each of them.

For example, the Air Force expressed a need for a display screen that could be easily viewed outside in direct sunlight-conditions under which most laptops fail. In response, Panasonic developed the technology and incorporated it into Toughbook models. Other upgrades over the years have included extensive sealing to prevent moisture or dust from fouling the computer, shock-mounted hard drives to withstand vibrations and impacts, secure wireless networking and data storage, and even integrated Global Positioning System (GPS) for mission planning.

Recent requirements have caused Panasonic to develop more slim-line, semirugged laptops for less strenuous applications. "The semiruggeds have many of the same features, but they're more lightweight for greater mobility and even suitable for regular office duty," O'Hara said.

The wide use of the Toughbooks in the military has opened up a new audience for Panasonic in the federal civilian marketplace, especially in agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that do a lot of field work. "FEMA deployed a thousand new Toughbooks last year when all the hurricane activity hit the southern U.S.," O'Hara said.

With a now-diverse product line, Panasonic has begun to beef up its marketing efforts and explore new markets with the help of Oradell, N.J.-based Sigma Group Advertising.

"The bulk of Panasonic's Toughbook advertising early on was generally broad branding messages," said Meg Tipton, a senior account director at Sigma. "We have been working to expand the company's presence in government subverticals, to increase the number and variety of ads and to boost its online efforts."

In addition, the creative has grown more targeted and features dual images-one that quickly identifies the target audience and another that showcases a specific use for a given Toughbook.

Print advertising has run in horizontal government publications such as Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News, as well as Army Magazine and Air Force Magazine, allowing Panasonic to drill down to its subvertical targets. Sigma has also supplemented print and online advertising with outdoor and subway billboards.

The results have been very positive. Federal government sales of the Toughbook increased 16% to 17% from 2003 to 2004, for a total of approximately $170 million, according to O'Hara. In addition, the company has seen a tremendous jump in leads and is hopeful 2005 will be even better. 

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