The following is a true story, and happened to me today.
I'm on a business trip visiting Richmond, Virginia -- which for those of you kids reading this piece, is the state capital, has a population of over 200,000, and is home to a number of large corporations. Hardly a backwater town in the middle of nowhere, right?
I decided to do some shopping this evening at the supermarket for some groceries to take back to my hotel suite so I can make myself some breakfast in the morning. After paying at the checkout counter I attempted to cart my groceries away to the car, only to be intercepted by a teenage employee dressed in a green apron who informs me he was happy to do this for me and yanks my cart away, directing me to lead him to my vehicle parked in the lot. This in itself was not odd, because I am aware that in some Southern states such Florida which have a large elderly population, this practice by grocery chains such as Publix is fairly common.
Still, I consider myself to be able bodied (Sunday was my 39th birthday, hardly qualifying for Social Security yet) and it was a whole container of egg beaters, a loaf of whole grain bread, a bag of pre-washed spinach, a few bags of soy chips and some pre-cooked herbed chicken sausage which was hardly worth the effort carrying out, but whatever. Analyze that shopping list and you'll fully appreciate how lame my life has become.
The kid asked me where I was visiting from, because clearly, I was not a local, and my New Yawk accent gave it away.
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Me: New York... can't you tell?
Kid: Cool. What's that badge you're wearing? I... B... R? What do they do?
Me: "NOT I.B.R. It's my IBM badge, you know, I.B.M.. I work for I... B... M...".
Kid: "Oh, so like, what do you do?"
Me: I work with computers. I'm a systems integration expert.
Kid: "What does IBM do?"
Me: You're messing with me, right? You've never heard of IBM?
Kid: "No sir."
Me: We're the largest technology company in the world. We make computers, do technology consulting and we have over 350,000 employees worldwide.
Me: Yes, really.
Kid: I've never seen an.. uh.. IBM computer before. I thought Apple or Dell was the biggest computer company.
Me: Not even close. Hewlett-Packard is getting there though.
Kid: Hewlett who?
Me: How old are you, kid?
I was so dumbfounded by my experience that I shared the story with one of my other industry colleagues, who writes for another publication.
Andy: I'm not surprised man.
Me: How many freaking commercials do we have?
Andy: Yeah, fine, the green commercials are cute, but a kid his age knows products. He probably owns an iPod and an Xbox, so he knows who Apple and Microsoft is.
Me: We're the second most recognizable brand behind Coca-Cola. Don't they teach these kids anything?
Andy: Because people drink Cokes. When IBM sold it's PC division to Lenovo, things changed. IBM has no consumer products anymore.
Now, of course, it got me thinking, are kids really that stupid today? Are they so self-absorbed into video games and consumer technology that they have no idea who IBM is? I mean sure, I could understand not knowing who AIG, Wachovia, Merrill Lynch or Lehman Brothers is. Maybe the Social Studies teacher would have to spend an entire lesson on that one. But IBM? Come on!
Growing up in the 1970's, even before IBM created the PC, I knew who IBM was. When I was eight or nine years old and my interest was piqued in computers, probably after watching a Star Trek episode or an old Sci-Fi movie .... perhaps even 2001: A Space Odyssey ... I must have asked somebody... my grandfather, my parents, somebody, "Who makes computers?". And the answer, of course, naturally was IBM.
Heck, back in 1975 or 1977 or so, I knew you couldn't own a computer, big companies used them, but IBM made them. And as far as I knew, nobody else made computers until someone told me that Sperry Rand also made them, and that's because there was a big Sperry office near my house and my father pointed it out to me. I didn't even know HP or Sun made computers until I was in high school (1980s) and had summer jobs with medium sized businesses who had them, along with DECs and Altos machines.
So do you have to make something consumable to even be part of the zeitgeist of today's generation? For Generation X and earlier, you obviously didn't have to. But the question begs, does IBM need to reach out to kids in order to maintain its brand going into future decades? Does it need a highly visible consumer product? Talk Back and let me know.
Disclaimer: The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.