The IBM Brand: How Tech Became Human

IBM PCIn a short video about the IBM brand, Jon Iwata, Senior Vice President (Marketing and Communications), states, “We don’t try to manage the IBM brand. We try to manage our character as a business. And we’ve never defined IBM by what we’re selling.”

And, really, isn’t this how all of the branding giants operate?

Walt Disney World® doesn’t sell Mickey Mouse shirts. Disney sells childhood bliss (for all ages).

Apple® doesn’t sell cell phones and computers. Apple sells acceptance.

Mercedes-Benz® doesn’t sell personal transportation. Mercedes sells status.

And Pampers®? They sell the American adult dream of being pampered (to borrow from a David Foster Wallace theory)

Branding Without Products

The secret behind all of these brand giants – here focusing on IBM – is that, as leaders, they can’t wrap up their definitions of self in consumer goods – especially when those consumer goods are technology.

What if we had come to known IBM as “the typewriter,” à la Kleenex/tissues? What if IBM became synonymous for “cloud computing?” While these terms might produce a desirable short-term effect, the long-term benefit would wear thin. Just as the typewriter is now passé, so will cloud computing one day be.

Instead of embodying a product, IBM and the brand giants embody a culture. As Sandy Carter, an IBM VP, says, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The idea, I’ll wager a guess, is that strategy is limited to the brand’s interior: what we sell, how we sell it, how we treat customers, how we treat non-customers, how we treat competitors, etc.

The focus is from the inside out.

Culture,” as Shawn Parr of Fast Company puts it, “is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that combined create either pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation.”

The focus here is from the outside in.

Instead of asking, how do we exert our influence – our brand – on others, IBM is asking, how do we allow our brand to be defined by what the culture demands?

The Tech to Human Shift

It’s in this way that IBM has become increasingly more human and less “techy.” You can see this happening, in a way, with major tech/industry corporations (like Cisco) that are developing extensive humanized blog networks. However, they aren’t up there at the IBM level.

A great example of how IBM has made that tech to human shift is the People for a Smarter Planet initiative, which aims to connect people – and their idle computer sleep time – to fight AIDS, childhood cancer, and find clean energy solutions. As Forbes points out, it’s the perfect humanizing initiative because people already associate IBM with this greater sense of “connectedness” – just in the tech spheres instead of the personal relations sphere.

What Do You Really Sell?

So, my question for you is, “What are you really selling?” As you’re building your brand, I’d like to encourage you to give the question some serious thought. How does your product affect your brand? How does culture affect your brand? How does culture interact with your strategy?

IBM raises some interesting concepts that can be applied to business branding. How will you use them?

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Ben Richardson is a writer based in Nashville, TN. While he loves writing on a variety of subjects, he's our go-to on all things related to branding and the creative aspects of content marketing. Follow him on Twitter!

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