Tech branding column

A few years ago, I remember talking to an analyst about Gateway?s talking cow ads. He found the ads entertaining, but pointed out that the ads did nothing for Gateway?s brand.

A few years ago, I remember talking to an analyst about Gateway?s talking cow ads. He found the ads entertaining, but pointed out that the ads did nothing for Gateway?s brand.

No matter how engaging, clever, or funny the ads, he said wouldn't move the needle an inch when it came to consumers' share of heart for Gateway. Share of mind, maybe. But not share of heart.

What endears a person to a brand is that person's experience, he explained. So if a customer loved the ads, but had a terrible experience buying a computer in one of Gateway's now-defunct stores, and had a terrible experience setting up and using the computer, and had a terrible experience calling customer service, you can be pretty sure those talking cows wouldn't be repeating what would be coming out of that customer's mouth.

Brand boils down to the customer experience. And judging from this year's crop of PR initiatives from technology companies, the tech industry finally understands that all too well. In the past year, Kodak, Sun Microsystems, Adobe Systems, BEA Systems, Autodesk, Quark, and Freescale Semiconductor have all kicked off branding campaigns with their eye squarely on the customer. And brand will certainly take center stage when SBC Communications acquires AT&T, and takes the latter company's better-known brand.

And that is what this column will look at each month -- the role of the brand for technology companies. Because if advertising is about building share of mind, then PR is about building share of heart. And a customer's affinity for a company goes a long way to building a strong brand.

Tech companies have clearly grown up from their nascent days when they talked about speeds and feeds in a jargon few could understand. And they've learned their lesson from the dot com days, when PR was often self-centered at best and egomaniacal at worst.

Not that everyone has learned these important lessons about brand. Just look at the crowd of companies promising the next iPod killer, a category littered with forgotten products that have made the same empty boast, and simply tried to get attention for calling themselves iPod killers, but failing to offer anything remotely interesting in style or technology or experience.

The technology industry, thanks to the dot com crash and subsequent recession, has had to grow up in a hurry, and start acting like a mature industry full of companies with sound and coherent business propositions.

And brand is a good indicator of just who has those sound and coherent visions. When Interbrand released its latest ranking of the top 100 global brands, much was made of the fact that Samsung surpassed Sony for the first time. And no doubt Samsung got there because it was making great products that provided a great experience that earned it some great press.

Sony's response was that it was much ado about nothing, as they still topped Harris Interactive's list as the top brand around. But media coverage for Samsung in recent years has been about how the company has elevated its brand with innovative products, while Sony's press this past year has been more about what it's going to take to restore some of the luster to its brand.

Above all, companies with strong brands ultimately have good relationships with their customers. They give their customers not just the great products they want, but also a great experience. And now that the media are demanding more proof points and customer references, making sure customers have that great experience is more important than ever.

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