Staying basic

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The key to building and marketing a strong brand is no longer tied to just hard-sell advertising but to a subtle message that resonates with the target audience.

Last year, my marketing team was faced with launching a major marketing and advertising initiative around IBM Software Group's four software brands. We began by seeing the campaign through the eyes of our customers-developers, product specialists and other IT professionals making the software-buying decisions.

That wasn't easy, especially when an ad mockup featuring two futuristic programmers in space suits was dropped on my desk one afternoon last winter. The story line revolved around two visitors-"codernauts"-who had come to Earth looking for better software. Executives here were puzzled by the concept. I found it creatively interesting-but very bizarre. This past spring, however, while the rest of the industry seemed to be trimming its ad budgets, we invested $100 million in a global marketing initiative around the codernaut idea.

Why? A lot had to do with our marketing strategy-to increase recognition and awareness for our brands in an intensely competitive marketplace. In contrast to IBM corporate advertising, which targets C-level executives, the new campaign was to reach buyers and influencers of middleware (the layer of software that knits Web-based activities together). While we wanted something innovative and cutting edge, the main reason we went with this idea had to do with our core audience-an interesting group of sci-fi fanatics and Web enthusiasts. They gave the codernaut concept high marks.

We began with a bold objective: linking four software brands that not only had different value functions in the marketplace but also were dwarfed by our $90 billion parent corporation-with its multiple divisions, products and services, and one of the most recognizable brand names in the world.

Our division had grown into a $13 billion business comprising four main products-Lotus, WebSphere, DB2 and Tivoli. Each had different equities and attributes. With one part of our business built organically and the other through acquisitions, our concern was that when buyers of software saw these different IBM brands, they had no idea they were part of a larger strategy. Customers told us this was an opportunity we were forfeiting.

We asked software customers and users what they wanted to see. They said they wanted the best of both worlds: a campaign with a common look and feel, without compromising the names of the individual products or the IBM brand name. That led us and our agency, WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, to develop a strategy in which all four brands promote their individual messages while collectively differentiating themselves from their competitors. Our objective? Position each brand as a critical building block of e-business-the IBM initiative for transforming key business processes using Internet-based technologies.

For help on a creative concept, we again turned to our buyers-an interesting group of independent thinkers with strong technical backgrounds and very specific tastes, such as a fascination with outer space. But finalizing a concept with our ad agency wasn't easy because the campaign objective was so bold. One team was much too conservative; the other drafted a concept that seemed a bit over the top. Had we not communicated openly with our agency and staff, built in metrics to measure results, secured buy-in from key staff (while limiting the number of people having a say on the project), we would never have made the progress we did.

The concept eventually agreed on was this: Two software programmers come to Earth from a parallel universe in search of a better way-specifically, better software. These "codernauts" discover cool software that runs on open standards and helps integrate everything easily and seamlessly.

The codernauts wrap our software offerings more closely together, while maintaining the brands' own identities-which is what customers told us they needed to understand better. The campaign takes aim, playfully, at the old world of proprietary technology architectures-a strategic weakness still prevalent among many of our competitors, which this campaign was able to exploit.

The campaign launched last March in nine countries, with an integrated mix of TV, online, print, outdoor and nontraditional media. Since our software influencers practically lived on the Web-they were online five times more than the average consumer-we doubled Web spending to 16%.

The campaign returns are promising: 22,000 leads generated; 51,000 downloads of the interactive Web site during the first week; 28 points over the competition for the TV spots; and a click-through rate two times the industry average.

Our success was tied to seven key strategies:

* Conducting straight talk with the agency.

* Selling the idea internally.

* Getting people involved-but not too many.

* Recognizing the benefits in promoting different brands while at the same time making them part of a larger play.

* Using metrics to measure the success.

* Having a multichannel approach to TV, print and online media.

* Understanding the buyer.

In a slow economy, where every dollar must be answered for, launching a brand campaign is a daunting task. We succeeded by sticking to solid marketing fundamentals and drawing from a set of emotions that chimed with our core customers.

Mr. D'Ambrosio is VP-worldwide sales and marketing, IBM Software Group, Somers, N.Y.

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