The business-to-business marketer that plays the dual role of tech leader and global business consulting firm is using a mainstream ad platform, the NCAA Tournament, to position itself as an enabler of other businesses' innovation in 60-second spots with the tagline, "What makes you special?"
And that's left some industry pundits scratching their heads over the mass-media placement.
"The NCAA Tournament is kind of an unusual place to reach a C-level audience. That message could be much more targeted. It is high-profile, but it's hitting the wrong market," said Rob Enderle, analyst with Enderle Group. He added, somewhat joking, "You generally do this when you've got someone in your up-line that likes basketball. I don't know if Sam [Palmisano, IBM Chairman-CEO] likes basketball, but this is an indication that he might."
The IBM innovation marketing campaign includes other components, of course-after the tournament and eight-page insert in The Wall Street Journal launch last week, the campaign moved to cable TV news shows and print business publications including Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek, plus online and outdoor advertising.
"We do the NCAA because it's a very popular sporting event and we have an advertising in-market study that shows our most effective medium, where we achieve our greatest awareness, is in TV and in sports on TV. So whenever we can get a very high-profile sporting event we take advantage of it," said Deirdre Bigley, VP-worldwide advertising at IBM.
The company spent $350 million in measured media last year, and while it wouldn't break down how that's spent, IBM said it's "overwhelmingly" on business-to-business ads.
IBM certainly isn't alone among b-to-b companies who use mass media. Cisco and Microsoft also advertised in this year's NCAA Tournament. Business marketers with broad product portfolios often find themselves in the awkward position of figuring out how to reach C-level executives or purchasing managers without wasting money on unwanted targets.
"Back in the day, if you wanted to reach C-level executives, you bought the back page of Fortune and called it a day. There's obviously a lot of waste in that," said Nick Johnson, senior VP-general manager of behavioral-targeting firm Revenue Science. Today, he said, new technologies that offer enhanced targeting can help resolve some of those old b-to-b dilemmas.
And in an era of tight budgets, increased return-on-investment demands, and fragmented media, many business marketers are spending much less on mass broadcast media. While a recent IDC study found that the top b-to-b marketing priority for 2006 is brand awareness (49% ranked it No. 1), it also found that marketers plan to accomplish that even as they continue the trend away from mass-media broadcast to more targeted one-on-one channels.
"Other than the big companies, b-to-b companies are not looking to TV, partly because they can't afford it. ... What everyone is interested in now is what is the return on investment-no matter what the media," said Michael Gerard, director of IDC's CMO Advisory Practice.
For IBM, there are reasons why reaching out to a mass audience makes sense. Big Blue needs to maintain its edge-of-technology reputation for its own employees, build goodwill in the communities where it has offices (or might build them) and make sure the best and brightest potential employees consider IBM worthy. Mass media ad campaigns serve as reminder and reinforcement of that leadership position.
"This is not just an advertising push. This is a companywide mission to push the `innovation-that-matters' message as the public view of IBM," Ms. Bigley said.