High-Tech Branding: Mythology in Search of a Budget

© Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

Branding seems to be the high-tech marketing fad these days. It's difficult to pick up a publication or go online without encountering yet another breathless article on ‘branding'.

Before you recast your marketing budget to accommodate this consumer marketing technique, consider the following:

These events would not seem to bode well for the concept of high-tech branding, but branding evangelists are not easily dissuaded. Al Ries, and advertising executive-turned-author who is perhaps best know for his book years ago on the marketing concept of positioning, has taken lately to writing a series of books about ‘The 22 Immutable Laws' of anything. The latest is about branding, and in an interview, he offers a very telling remark that indicates the shortcoming of applying the concept of branding to high-tech marketing: "You can't pick up 10 computer chips and tell me you can see the difference. You can't physically evaluate them, and therefore you trust the brand."

This remark not only shows you the origin of branding, but also indicates the significant shortcomings of the basic assumptions of the branding concept - such as the assumption that the buyer cannot readily obtain comparison information. Can't evaluate computer chips? Come on - in using the term ‘CPU performance' as a search term on Alta Vista, more than 3300 web pages were returned. The first few were showing head-to-head comparisons of Intel, AMD, Cyrix, etc. "Trust the brand" ? - only if you don't know how to perform basic buying research and use a search engine. Obviously, Al Ries has never heard of the Internet, or doesn't know how to use it.

The concept of branding, as previously mentioned, comes from the consumer marketing arena. The idea is that when a consumer has to make a purchase, your ‘brand' is foremost in their mind, to the exclusion of others, and they purchase your goods or services without comparison. Fine in theory, but there are a few limitations. Most notably, that the purchase is heavily influenced by emotion, there is relatively little risk (e.g. beer, detergent, cereal) involved in the decision, third-party comparison information is hard to come by (alluded to by Ries' remark), and the characteristics of the product/service and market are relatively stagnant (e.g., don't change much, such as hamburgers.)

Once you realize the underpinnings of the theory of branding, you begin to realize why many aspects of the concept don't effectively translate to technology (even consumer technology). Hence, even Dell Computer and Microsoft have problems influencing buying decisions with ‘branding', no matter how many millions, or billions, they throw at the concept.

For example, one of the constants in high-tech (especially computer arena) is change and innovations in technology, which happen with ever-increasing velocity. Your purchase decision, even with the best of research, is only valid the moment you make it. Key assumptions made during this buying cycle will be out of date by the next buying cycle - even if it is only tomorrow. The expression "Nobody ever lost their job by specifying IBM" belongs in the 1950's.

Does that mean the concept of ‘branding' is worthless to the high-tech marketer? Not really, if you understand the limitations of the concept. But it is nowhere near as powerful as its supporters would suggest (it is simply another marketing tool), and the length of time you have employ it to influence a potential buyer is far shorter than is commonly suggested.

The usual concept of branding suggests that you maintain buyer ‘mindshare' in between buying cycles, or prior to a buying cycle. That, on the face of it, is a tremendous leap of faith. How many of us maintain awareness of product or service characteristics if we are not in the buying cycle, as opposed to fine-tuning our radar once we decide to begin the buying process? This is one of the counter-productive aspects of conventional ‘branding' strategies: the message is so diluted by excessive use or clever ‘creative' messages designed to pound through our non-buying information filters that once a buyer begins to look at the purchase, much of the information is regarded as too simplistic, misleading, or simply tuned out as irrelevant - possibly losing the buyer and the sale.

So how should the concept of branding be applied to high-tech marketing? By acknowledging that the ‘brand' image will have to be created and validated during the sales cycle. What this means is that the key metrics of branding - that the buyers' experience will be in line with their expectations, which have been set by the marketing messages they receive, all takes places when they are in the buying cycle, not before or in between buying cycles. In short, your branding message has to be focused on why the customer is buying, and establish your competitive distinction, and then deliver (all in the mind of the buyer) on those competitive distinction promises. If this sounds a lot like the normal blocking-and-tackling of sales and marketing - that's because it is. It's when the concept of branding is applied outside the sales cycle that the smoke and mirrors begin to appear - because the results can't clearly be measured, as they can within the sales cycle, and you begin to see the situations described at the beginning of this article - regardless of the budgets.

Copyright 1999 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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