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What's in a name? IBM's branding puzzle

Creating a unified vision out of a huge portfolio of separate products has been a challenge for IBM. The Smarter Planet campaign has gone a long way towards making IBM's products much more understandable.
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Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor on

A Kusnetzky Group client recently asked me what I thought about IBM's "Smarter Planet" campaign. We discussed why a company having such a diverse and complex portfolio of products and services would need this type of marketing construct and how it benefits both IBM and its customers. Here’s my take on the subject.

The Problem

IBM offers a broad range of hardware, software and services products. Each of them has a unique audience; set of strengths and weaknesses; set of competitive threats; and its own market opportunities. Given this inherent complexity, it clearly is a daunting task to help the market gain an awareness of and interest in:

  • The existence of each product offering
  • Where it fits in IBM's overall portfolio
  • What it can do to help customers succeed
  • Why it is better than competitors’ offerings
  • How an amazingly diverse set of products can work together to address customers' unique and specific needs

It is difficult enough to accomplish these tasks for a single product. I can only imagine what type of effort it takes to create a unified vision for:

  • Multiple platforms, including IBM's PureSystems, System z, System x and Power Systems offerings
  • Multiple system configurations, including blades, clusters, and system enclosures ranging from the very small to the very large
  • Multiple operating systems, including IBM’s z/OS, IBM I and AIX, Linux variants and Microsoft Windows
  • Application frameworks
  • Database systems
  • Management software
  • Professional Service offerings
  • Cloud service offerings.

IBM's Smarter Planet Campaign

In 2008, IBM started presenting unified messages about its product and services portfolio using a single "Smarter Planet" campaign. Each product could then be positioned as supporting one or a number of Smarter Planet functions allowing customers to go beyond mere features and basic compatibility to thinking about how all of the products fit together into a singular vision.

As this campaign continued and evolved, the messages have been refined and unified allowing technologies as diverse as artificial intelligence (Watson); systems and network management (Tivoli), application frameworks (WebSphere), information management (DB2 and Cognos), integration frameworks (InfoSphere), packed software products, professional services and cloud services to be discussed in simple, easy-to-understand terms.

Analysis

In the past, IBM competitors have been able to take one of the company’s greatest strengths, its diverse product portfolio, and make them appear to be a glaring weakness. These competitors could easily pull up a multi-page list of IBM products and services and say something to the effect of "IBM representatives can't name all of these products, much less understand what each of them does and how to make them work together to solve your problems. We offer a much simpler product portfolio so it’s easy to know what we do and how it can help you."

It is very clear that IBM spent a great deal of time examining where they lost business and why they lost to competitors with fewer years of experience, fewer customers and far less capability to solve business problems.

The result of that examination was an effort to better integrate IBM’s hardware and software solutions, improve the capabilities of its professional services organizations and find a way to speak about the vast portfolio in simple clear ways.

IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign makes it easy for the company to speak in glowing terms about its comprehensive set of capabilities and products without having to go deeply into specifics. IBM can then focus on an individual customer's challenges, the pain those problems are causing and point out specific products that can relieve the customer’s discomfort.

Later, when other problems come to the forefront, IBM can replay the grand Smatter Planet vision and discuss the products and services that address greater problems at hand. Presto, what used to appear to be a weakness can now be seen as strength once again.

Competitors, such as Dell, HP and Oracle/Sun, also have complex product portfolios but have not been able to develop a similar easy to understand and yet comprehensive unified message. Good job, IBM.

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