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HP, Fulfill Your Promise to Make It Personal

Revision Needed: Why Hewlett-Packard's Latest Campaign Should Have Told a Different Story

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At its foundation, great advertising is about demand creation. It's about filling an unfulfilled need, or creating a need and then filling it. When done correctly, it's a magical experience.
There is no connection between HP's personal-computer attributes and the advertising campaign's messages.
There is no connection between HP's personal-computer attributes and the advertising campaign's messages.

It's within this context that I want to take a look at HP's ad campaign "The Computer is Personal Again." I'm not sure how many of you have been paying attention to it. Actually, after the May 2006 launch, I'm wondering how long ago you started to tune out. It's been in every major magazine (Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0, Fortune, Forbes), daily publication (The Wall Street Journal, The (London) Times, etc.) and relevant website. Several articles have been published on the campaign itself. It is by far the biggest advertising expenditure in the tech field since the boom (pre-2001).

If money is the measure, it's clear HP is trying to do something grand. But there are several important questions: whether it's working, whether it's real and whether the campaign will create enduring value.

Evaluating the strategy
Let's look at the campaign against some criteria:
  1. Does it communicate a solid value proposition?
  2. Does it connect with people at an emotional level?
  3. Does the "sell" match the product/solution/service? Is the company providing a consumer experience in alignment with its brand "promise"?
Marketing can be defined as all the actions you take to increase sales without lowering the price. This is especially critical in the PC market, where manufacturers have to fight the price game and escape becoming commodities. How can companies avoid this fate? They need to relate to a higher value customers care about and associate it with a product through a compelling story. "The Computer is Personal Again" campaign focuses on the higher value of the personal computer.

The ad makes several claims: "Your personal computer is your backup brain. It's your life and the life of your business." "Today HP is making the entire experience of owning a computer more personal than ever before. We are designing products that offer you ever greater power, simplicity and security." "When you own a personal computer from HP, you own something more than the right to demand that the personal computer will finally live up to its name."

My initial take? That's great! I'm in. (I know I'm not the only person who'd really want what HP is promising.)

Promises and realities
Questions immediately run through my mind: Will it remember my passwords so I don't have to for the hundreds of unique sites I visit? Will it make blogging easier? Will it enable dictation tools so I can use my drive time more effectively? Will it protect me against losing my files? Will it integrate many things so I don't have to think about add-on devices and related compatibility issues?

But when I look at the rest of the ad, I get sad.

Right below the hand, HP lists hardware specs -- speeds and feeds. Huh? Does this make sense? That's not personal. At least not to me; feeds and speeds of hard drives and chip sets, while top of the line, have always been a part of the promise. They're a given.
Nilofer Merchant is CEO of Rubicon Consulting, a marketing consultancy for tech companies. Previously she held leadership positions at Apple, Autodesk and GoLive (later acquired by Adobe).
Nilofer Merchant is CEO of Rubicon Consulting, a marketing consultancy for tech companies. Previously she held leadership positions at Apple, Autodesk and GoLive (later acquired by Adobe).

There is no connection between HP's personal-computer attributes and the advertising campaign's messages. It's a malfunction between product design and marketing decisions. HP does little to back up its claims. Its personal computers don't feature any hardware or software improvements that actually make the computer a more powerful personal tool.

For all of you HP fans, here's an alternative that could have made it true.

Delivering a tangible difference
If HP were to fulfill the promise, it would have done something very different. One idea: Create a tangible product difference that would not only deliver on the campaign's promise but also support the corporate tagline: "Invent."

Think about what people use computers for today and ways HP technology could enable more connection. What with blogging, social networking, photos on Flickr, etc., we all have multiple sites we visit to engage with others. But every day, millions of people enter redundant names and passwords. A hardware vendor that really cared about making computers personal could develop an identity link that would connect all those networks.

When a company does marketing well, it provides buyers with a "decision shortcut" that connects the philosophy of the company with specifications that make a promise real. Consumers today have too much choice; when product differentiation is lost or confused, marketing makes the choice easy, or at least easier.

Stealing Dell's thunder
Is the ad working or is Dell just weak? HP and Dell products are perceived close to parity in web polls, although Dell has had strong share position. Dell, of course, has had a series of mishaps including a battery issue and, most recently, management turnover. With this advertising, HP has reduced Dell's share of voice. So even though the ads focus on features, they still make HP prominent at a time when Dell is vulnerable.

The PC campaign uses two communication strategies simultaneously. HP didn't make up its mind about which one to use -- a promise story or a product story. As a product campaign, the print executions include model numbers, product features, pricing and a purchase call to action. Where they fail is in not telling the promise story.

A hand graphic and a tagline -- "The Computer is Personal Again" -- is not a story unto itself. HP must create a dialogue with consumers and tell them a story that's believable on a rational or emotional level. When they do that, it will provide a very powerful reason for consumers to consider HP during their purchase-decision process.
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