Major Marketing Blunders in Tech

As we move into market recovery, marketing budgets once again are being funded, and I thought it would be good to look at the mistakes made by technology companies in the past. While this is a painful trip down memory lane for many, my hope is that this will keep the firms from making the same mistakes again.

One of the problems the technology industry is struggling with is a lack of core marketing skills and quality metrics, and this combination generally leads to unfortunate, and expensive, mistakes that otherwise could be avoided. In each case addressed herein, there were people who knew that these were bad ideas and, in a parody of “the emperor’s new clothes,” chose, for whatever reason, to keep silent, with disastrous results to their company’s image and potential.

A Female Impersonator as a Spokesperson

I expect a number of you are thinking I must be kidding, but I’m not. About five years ago, NEC released a campaign whose core message surrounded its flexibility in dealing with problems. It was a good concept, but its primary spokesperson was a famous female impersonator and its target audience was the IT buyer. Now IT, in most parts of the world, is a very conservative organization, and the likelihood they would take the advice of a man dressed as a woman, no matter how famous, was incredibly unlikely. However, billboards and magazine ads were spread liberally across the U.S., and while it probably did a great deal for brand recognition, it did nothing for sales.

This is a common problem you will see through this piece. It is difficult to measure demand, which should be the primary measure of any marketing program. After all, the whole purpose of marketing is to sell a product, a service or an idea. However, it is much easier to measure brand recognition, and often this is the primary metric used to measure the success of a marketing campaign. When companies focus on the visibility aspect of a brand and forget the other core attributes that make the related products attractive, mistakes like this can occur.

The Idiot Customer

After this campaign bombed, NEC came out with a followup campaign based on the key word “evolve.” The intended message was to imply that business had “evolved” and that NEC had evolved to address the new wants and needs that came with this evolution. Once again the concept was good, the execution was horrid. This campaign, largely using magazine ads, showcased a good-looking male model walking out of the surf with an NEC laptop dangling from his hand.

Now, water and laptops certainly don’t co-exist very well, and this good-looking, well-dressed guy was either incredibly rich to be taking strolls through the surf with his laptop or he was incredibly stupid. Neither view was consistent with the audience NEC was trying to address. In its defense, it was trying to connect back to the old evolution picture that shows fish evolving into men, but the agency, in trying to turn that into a more attractive concept, lost all of the evolution messaging in the picture and, as a result, the end product basically implied that NEC customers were stupid.

It didn’t do well either, and it showcases why vendors need to drive their agencies and not let the agencies drive them. If it looks stupid, it probably is, and keeping quiet if you see an agency doing something bad with your own company’s brand or products is never a wise course of action.

Hey ‘Dude’

Dell had a killer campaign with its “Hey Dude” character a few years ago. Unfortunately, it became an embarrassment because Dell forgot one thing: You want the audience to focus on the message not the spokesman. Also, while its core message worked very well for a consumer audience, it did damage to their much larger IT buyer base. It made Dell look like it was changing focus away from IT, and this created some problems in sales situations. The campaign collapsed when the now famous spokesman got arrested on drug charges, effectively killing the effort.

McDonalds actually does this best and should be used as an example. It rotates its clown regularly so that people don’t get invested in one actor and, instead, are invested in a character that McDonalds owns and controls. Since you never know the “person” if the person has human failings, there is less likelihood that the character and person will become intertwined and damage the brand or product. The Jack in the Box character is much the same.

Party Mentality

Back at the turn of the century the then head of a large candy company was traveling with a young college graduate who asked the reason for the large advertising budget given the candy company was number one in its industry. The executive is reported to have smiled and said, “well, we are traveling about 70 miles per hour in this steam powered train. Why don’t we just stop putting wood in the boiler?” His point was that no matter where you are in the market, you need sustaining advertising to ensure demand doesn’t degrade.

Microsoft’s Windows 95 launch was one of the most powerful launches in the history of tech. Demand for the product spiked, and stores had difficulty keeping it is stock. It was reported that Microsoft had set aside an unprecedented, at that time, US$300 million to market the product. However, after the impressive launch party, they effectively stopped marketing the product.

Problems with the offering now filled the gap left by the drop in budget, demand cratered and sales were half what they otherwise would have been during the 4th quarter of 1995 as compared to surveys that had preceded the launch. Even today the product is remembered as being of low quality, and it has reflected negatively on products that have followed it. Even today, much of Microsoft’s problems have to do with an inability to do sustaining marketing, which creates a substantial drag on sales.

The launch is important because it sets the tone and helps drive early adopters to the stores; sustaining advertising is just as important because it helps manage the customer perceptions of the offering and sustain that demand. Recently Sony launched its “iPod killer” product, and the executive staff went on vacation the day after the launch, effectively killing the launch momentum. It isn’t about the launch party, it’s about selling products, and forgetting this small fact has cost the industry billions.

Building Someone Else’s Brand

Often famous people are selected for the promotion because they are trusted to carry a message. One of the best programs of this type was when John Wayne was used for Great Western Savings in the 1970s. Great Western wanted to convey a message of trust and connect back to the old West for core values, and no other actor at that time could have conveyed this message more effectively.

Intel chose the Blue Man Group, a relative unknown at the time, and turned them into a household name. The company invested millions in a very high concept campaign that connected the group to the Intel product brands of Pentium III and Pentium 4. Surveys showed that both brands were more easily recognized; unfortunately, no connection was made to demand, and the press had a field day pointing out that the campaign was just a waste of money, and Intel sales were suffering while the Blue Man Group became rich and famous.

Strangely enough, Intel had one of the most successful character-based campaigns previously. Based on “Bunny Men,” or people dressed up in colorful, clean suits, these were characters that Intel owned, that could be used to showcase product values for both IT and consumers and, to this day, are readily connected favorably by many to the Intel brand.

While there were no scandals with the Blue Man Group, Intel did make one mistake with the Bunny Men, portraying one as a thief in a poorly conceived Superbowl advertisement. If Intel had just asked the leading expert on how to maintain a character-based campaign, Disney, it would likely still be using the Bunny Men today.

Wrapping Up

Marketing is a skill. It is founded on knowledge of what influences people, and it should be measured on its contribution to sales. It isn’t the same as public relations, engineering or sales, and it generally does require some formal training to do right. The mistakes I’ve highlighted are generally the result of having decision makers who lack the needed experience, poorly chosen metrics, too many “yes” men and women, or an agency that is out of control.

I’d like to leave you with one thing this week: Sometimes it is important to stand up and be counted if you value your company’s future, for if the “emperor has no clothes,” often it is your own butt that is hanging out in the wind.

Rob Enderle, aTechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, aconsultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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