Fiona Parker
Nov 11, 2016

Time out for technology brands: Telling the story beyond your product

Products are a tech company's core, but building a brand image beyond them is equally as important, writes Fiona Parker, APAC technology lead at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Fiona Parker
Fiona Parker

The speed of digital transformation is dizzying, and it’s happening in front of our eyes. A website called www.internetlivestats.com has an online counter clocking up new internet users, the number of websites and emails sent, among other things, in real time. According to the same site, 40 percent of the world’s population has an internet connection. In 1995, it was less than 1 percent.

In that time, a relentless tide of tech products has come to market that has profoundly changed our lives, for better or worse, depending upon your viewpoint. The '90s gave us the world’s first smartphone, digital photography, the Sony PlayStation, the MP3, GPS-guided munitions and the RQ-1 Predator Drone. The noughties gave us the iPod, the iPhone, social media and Google. The current decade has so far produced the iPad, driverless cars, the first synthetic cell, 3D TV glasses and the electronic eye.

The impact of technology is clearly transformative, but in the great rush to be number one, two or three and beat competitors to market with the latest product, some technology companies are forgetting a few important ingredients that will underpin their brand regardless of whose smartphone display has the best pixel density.

If tech companies, or any company for that matter, focus on product to the exclusion of all else, when they slip in the innovation race there is often a breach in which market doubts start to rise. This can turn very quickly into a persistent wave of negative sentiment from which no one is immune, not even Apple.

The reality is that the product pays many of the bills and it is of paramount importance. But there is more to every company than just its products. There are its people, its supply chain and partners, the services it provides, R&D, social and physical footprint, intellectual property, heritage, community, its environmental impact and others.

All of these elements have a role to play in building the brand. In the technology sector this remains a delicate balance to strike, when much of the company’s sales and marketing effort is rightly focused on the next big product launch. But it is a critical issue that needs urgent consideration.

The comms voice in the boardroom, the CMO, must advocate and ensure that a clear strategy is in place for creating meaningful brand associations beyond just product messages and specifications. Genuine thought leadership takes time to get right, and it requires the 100 percent commitment of the CEO, who ultimately has to front the cameras and steer the ship through good times or bad.

Like the brand itself, spokespeople have to build goodwill by having a clear point of view, by being accessible, available and unafraid to speak out, even when it’s difficult.

Thought leadership takes guts and is not without risk, but that’s why the rewards are so compelling. Many companies have very good intentions but say little because it takes tremendous stamina to stay the course. Issues like the environment, for example, are also potentially sensitive.

We don't hear too many of the big electronics or mobile phone companies talking about the fact that, according to the UN’s "Solving the E-Waste Problem” (StEP) Initiative, the global volume of discarded refrigerators, TVs, cellphones, computers, monitors and other electronic waste will weigh almost as much as 200 Empire State Buildings by 2017. That’s a staggering 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste discarded each year.

Many brands have made a strong commitment to sustainability, but too often it’s a token effort rather than part of a longer-term strategic focus with the necessary investment and dedicated resources to make real change.

When there is no clear leader in a space that is where opportunity lies. The brand that is the first to have a clear point of view, properly supported and invested in, strikes a first mover advantage and crosses into rarefied air where few of its competitors can follow.

Tech CMOs need to ensure the brand strategy is supported by a multi-disciplinary thought leadership and reputation management plan which exploits the company’s natural strengths outside its product communications comfort zone. To reap the rewards on offer and be market leader in more than just a quantitative list of numbers that changes by a few points every quarter, this is the leap that many tech companies need to make.

The basic building blocks for effective thought leadership:

  1. Conduct a thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of your communication in the past 12 months - and that of your competition.
  2. Marry this information with the major trends and hot topics in the market, find your company’s sweet spot and keep watch.
  3. Meet with your c-suite spokesperson and, in a critical step often missed, identify the particular points of passion for your senior spokesperson, as this is where they will speak with the most conviction and gravitas. If they aren’t already, make sure they are fully media trained.
  4. Define a compelling narrative based on your company’s USPs and the opportunity that you have defined.
  5. Build your strategy around planned, anticipated and reactive communication tactics and make your company’s voice heard.

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