The ads would typically brag and boast of a stupefying laundry list of performance features accompanied by several visuals and concepts. It may not have been pretty, but it usually worked. With sharply truncated product life cycles and nearly identical technical standards, however, it's no longer the horsepower that matters. It's the message, stupid.
The messages being delivered by high-technology advertisers today are increasingly focused on benefits to the end-user rather than a dry recitation of product features. The images and the language are more human. Single visual elements-which often are not the product itself-tend to dominate the executions.
Stealing a page from their consumer brethren, high-tech advertisers are increasingly developing and nurturing brands to help differentiate their products and services. The more appealing images and distinctive brands are being integrated into all the media that an advertiser uses to convey a more focused, consistent message.
GLORIFIED SPEC SHEET
There are still plenty of high-tech advertisers who regard advertising as a glorified way of doing a spec sheet. Too bad for the marketer, but it's fine by the members of the Copy Chasers panel, who earn their keep by criticizing the work that falls short of its 10 criteria for successful business-to-business advertising.
The Copy Chasers' sense that technical messages are becoming more simple and more human is borne out by IntelliQuest Inc.'s 1995 Technology Agency Media & Marketing survey done for Advertising Age and Business Marketing. The study concluded that more high-tech companies are taking a more consumer-like approach to their advertising as a result of corporate downsizing, which has extended the power to make high-tech purchases to people who are not technical experts.
"We're seeing a lot of high-tech purchasing authority being distributed out into departments," said Brian Sharples, Intelliquest president. "As this market matures, the kind of people with the decision to buy this technology is spreading out."
A high-tech ad that once may have only targeted a design engineer and spoke in his or her own abstruse language, for example, probably won't cut it in today's broad new corporate world. The ad needs to speak not only to the design engineer, but to his boss, the end-user and the distribution network.
A TALL ORDER
Humanizing high-technology advertising is a tall order, but it's a challenge more companies seem willing to tackle. When IBM fired the many ad agencies that were generating a cacophony of conflicting images and messages about the beleaguered Big Blue, it turned to Ogilvy & Mather and its newly arrived creative chief, Steve Hayden. The man who helped give Apple Computer its stylish image explained that his agency's mission wasn't to prove IBM's technological expertise, but its humanity. O&M's integrated, human campaign has breathed new life into an embattled brand.
Pierluigi Zappacosta, the Italian-born co-founder and chief executive of computer peripherals maker Logitech Inc., once made a 4 a.m. phone call to the head of the advertising agency handling his company's account. He complained that the Logitech ads failed to break through the clutter of the "tech and spec" advertising in the computer publications he was reading.
Iain Woolward, president of San Francisco-based agency Woolward & Partners, responded to the wake-up call by developing a wildly successful campaign that featured a series of improbable human images that included fat men in beanies, a urinating baby boy and fully-clothed nuns splashing in the surf.
The Logitech ads were intended not to evoke laughter but to brand Logitech as the "Senseware" company-or the company that brought a human touch to computing through its mice, scanners and sound input devices.
Logitech seized on a look and a message that it used consistently over time and across the spectrum of corporate structure and product lines.
The broad and consistent use of an image is an essential branding lesson that the Copy Chasers have been preaching since 1936, when the column was established.
It was a lesson, however, that far too few high-tech advertisers chose to adopt. They dismissed branding as a gimmick used by companies that sell soap or soda. But several high-tech advertisers saw the beauty of brand-building.
Perhaps none have done as successfully as Intel, whose "Intel inside" campaign helped pull its all-but-invisible microprocessors through the distribution channels by convincing consumers that if their computer didn't have an Intel chip on-board, it just wasn't a computer.
Intel's massive investment in advertising and co-op advertising seemed like a huge risk.
After all, how many people would go to a car dealer and insist that their new car be equipped with a particular brand of spark plug? Yet Intel has used its powerful brand to fend off the clonemakers.
Other leading high-tech brand builders of the 1990s include Hewlett-Packard Co., which artfully and consistently conveys an image of quality and reliability forits printer and other computer products. HP in the 1990s has twice won the Sawyer Award, the year's best business-to-business ad as judged by the Copy Chasers' panel at Advertising Age's Business Marketing. Compaq Computer's "Has It Changed Your Life Yet?" branding campaign has helped it maintain leadership in the PC market, and Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" campaign has allowed it to maintain dominance in the software field.
Microsoft continues to employ strong human images to help it sell something as faceless as software. Digital Equipment Corp. has tapped a series of eminently likable simian faces to help it grab the attention of management information systems and information technology managers in medium and small companies. Digital wants to sell the target audience on the virtues of its Windows NT-based computing solution across the corporate computing environment.
The Microsofts, HPs, Compaqs and Intels have effectively used their brand advertising to stake out leadership positions in the marketplace. "Every creative strategy should establish or reinforce a position for your company," says Gordon Hochhalter, VP-creative director of Mobium Creative Group, a Chicago-based agency specializing in technology advertising.
"And every piece of communications must match that position. So if your company is perceived to be a leader, your creative strategies should revolve around selling the concept that made you famous. And then broaden its applications. If you're not the leader, then you should find a perceptual niche no one else is filling and become its leader. Or, try to reposition the competition in the prospect's mind."
A final word about technology advertising-the good ads seem to be using fewer words. Perhaps it's because technology ads routinely invite readers to visit their company's web site, where the marketer can elaborate on its products or corporate reputation.
Then there's Rik Meyers' theory that the real purpose of a technology ad is to motivate the readers rather than inform them. Mr. Meyers, creative director of Kerker Advertising in Minneapolis, says the "common belief is that a business-to-business ad ought to be full of a lot of information. . . .We believe the last thing the target audience wants is information. The first thing they want is motivation."
Readers motivated by a compelling image and a message that appeals to their self-interest will then take the necessary steps to begin learning more about a company and its products, he adds.M
Edmund O. Lawler is captain of the Copy Chasers, Advertising Age's Business Marketing's panel of advertising experts. He teaches advertising at De Paul University, Chicago.