Today we’re seeing an upheaval in the technology sector unlike any before. Driven by changes in the technology itself, we’re seeing brands that didn’t exist a few years ago driving the conversation. Teenagers like Google, Baidu, and Amazon are powering forward by blurring the lines between business models to create user value, while upstarts like Facebook and Zynga are creating business models that simply never existed.
But, for all the brand value being created, there is an equal amount of upheaval taking place with what might be considered the elder statesmen of the tech world. Whether it is Dell or HP, Intel or Microsoft, SAP or Oracle, the story is the same. Brands that once held the key to the hearts and wallets of the tech public aren’t what they once were. Unlike the normal course of business which see once-mighty brands sliding into the disrepair (Compaq or DEC, for example) this is a time when category-definers are waking up to find that it isn’t a case of the competition catching up, but that everything has changed. Sure, some of the businesses remain massive, and many of the brands are still incredibly valuable, but for how long? That’s the key question that many CMOs around Silicon Valley and the other global tech hubs are struggling with today.
So, what’s driving this change? It isn’t that the technology has changed (which it has), or that new technology has expanded what people can do with it (which it has, too). It’s that the world has changed.
Several years ago, Interbrand worked with a client to help them understand an emerging audience for their software: an audience commonly referred to at the time as “digital natives.” This was the first generation of people who had grown up with the internet. The concept seems quaint today. What was recently viewed as an emerging audience—a minority with strange ways—is today’s mainstream. And in that shift lies the problem for the old guard of technology brands.
The struggle for the brands that drove our technology choices 10 years ago is that they were built over a 20-year period. This is the period that saw the arrival of the PC into consumers homes and the debut the internet. These brands fit into a world where computing meant sitting down and getting to work. However, when that equation changed—first as “sitting down” morphed into “anywhere,” then as “work” expanded into “absolutely everything”—the context in which these brands existed in started to change too. Power, history, Mac versus PC, value: the very characteristics that people sought out in technology have fallen by the wayside, replaced by access, usability, and pace of evolution. The initial reaction by many affected brands has been to push harder, spend more, argue with consumers and the competition that what makes them different really does matter. Any business student will tell you it’s a bad strategy.
Which is why the technology brands from yesterday that stand the greatest chance of surviving today's upheaval are the ones who have turned their attention to their audiences and focused on brand relevance. They are asking what matters to users and what will matter, and building entire portfolios of brands, products, and offerings that address the needs of today and tomorrow. They’re finding a space for themselves in the new tech order by putting real innovation—in product and point of view—front and center. In a way, they’re simply taking a page from the competition's playbooks.
Doing this type of brand reinvention requires a tremendous amount of effort and willpower, as the nature of the organization behind the brand tends to revert back to the known and the comfortable. Having recognized that the risk of failure associated with change is preferable to the guaranteed failure that comes with inaction, these companies are undertaking internal brand activities to win the hearts and minds of employees.
Will they succeed? Undoubtedly some will and some will not. But what is certain is that five years from now the list of brands we describe as the leaders of the technology sector will be a mix, not of the old and the new, but of the recent, the reinvented, and, above all, the relevant.