As Sun Microsystems recovered from the tech downturn, it sought to refresh its brand by highlighting not the technology itself, but what Sun's technology enables its users to do.
And that meant talking about how the technology let its users participate and share in the ex- change of ideas and culture.
The branding campaign was also important because, after several years of acquisitions and being defined by competitors, Sun needed to re-establish who it was, what it was trying to accomplish, and how it brought a different vision to the market than its competitors, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
"People's perception of Sun was a few years old," says Karen Kahn, VP of global communications. "It was almost like it didn't matter what we said. It just wasn't connecting [with the media]."
The company did an "incredible" amount of soul-searching, adds Kahn, spending six months honing the messaging that eventually became "The Participation Age."
Sun sought to raise awareness of the evolution of its technology networks that allow users to share information across various industries, and aimed to position itself as driving that evolution.
This ideally would lead to the story Sun wanted to tell: It was ready to make a comeback.
"We wanted the media to see a feistier Sun, a Sun that was on the offensive," says Kahn.
It also wanted to show "how people use Sun's technology every day, but just don't know it," says MWW Group SVP and GM Matthew Rose.
Sun kicked off the campaign with an analyst and media tour to introduce "The Participation Age."
Sun demonstrated its technology by sponsoring events, including the second annual United Nations Pan-African Youth Summit. Sun donated technology and held training workshops to show delegates how IT and communication technologies can help youth leaders connect.
Sun also teamed up with the ONE Campaign and Oxfam to help inform and mobilize people against global poverty, disease, and hunger. Sun provided the infrastructure at concerts where people could participate in a cell-phone messaging campaign to support ONE. At U2 concerts, when lead singer Bono asked the audience to text their names in support of the campaign, they received messages back on their phones from Bono with more information about ONE.
Similarly, Sun joined with Oxfam on the Make Trade Fair campaign, in which fans at Coldplay concerts, through Sun's technology, could sign a petition and get more information by texting their e-mail addresses to TRADE.
More than 250,000 people texted their support for ONE, and Sun's involvement was picked up in media from ABC News and Reuters to Rolling Stone, People, and Billboard. With coverage in entertainment and pop culture magazines, and Sun branding at the concerts, the company was able to expose its brand to younger audiences and generate coverage in lifestyle and consumer publications.
Sun also found the U2 shows an ideal business setting. Sun closed more than $14 million of business at customer and sales events at the concerts, as the company could show how its hardware and software worked whenever Bono asked fans to text their support.
Sun will continue the campaign and its theme in 2006, providing more examples of Sun technology in everyday life and further positioning itself as a leader in the development of global networks.
PR TEAM: Sun Microsystems (Santa Clara, CA) and MWW Group (New York)
CAMPAIGN: The Participation Age
Duration: May 2005 - ongoing
The campaign worked because it enabled Sun to set its own agenda and identity. Kahn points to unyielding consistency throughout the effort, so that all audiences heard the same message, helping Sun define "The Participation Age" and its place in it.
The brand resonated because it came not just from marketing, but from executives, and showed how Sun's technology impacts society, instead of just talking about it in abstract or technological terms.
The campaign provided concrete examples of not just how Sun's technology affects business, but also culture and society, presenting a well-rounded picture that went beyond strategy and gave the media an obvious angle.