Personal computer brands fell from their original glory with Icarian speed and suddenness. Thanks to Michael Dell and the off-shore players, the market went from huge premiums to tiny margins in what seemed like a single precipitous descent.
The "commodity basement," this is where brands subsist on life support. Ventilators, tubes, shunts and pumps, the marketer will now resort to any artifice to keep the thing alive. When brands are obliged to compete on price alone, there are no margins for real acts of meaning manufacture. The brand clings to life. (And eventually even this is too much to hope for. We learned today that Ralph Lauren is discontinuing the Polo line of jeans. In its day, Polo was a brand to be reckoned with. Then it was remaindered to the commodity basement.)
The solution is obvious. Fight the price game! Escape the community basement! Identify a higher value that consumer cares about, and deliver this value with product and brand development.
This appears to be precisely what HP is up to with it’s new campaign from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Here is the copy from an ad which appears on the back cover of a recent BusinessWeek.
In the beginning, it was magic.
Magazines proclaimed a "personal computer revolution." And it was, for awhile.
But soon the word "revolution" got dropped from "personal computer revolution." "Personal" vanished from "personal computer." And both words disappeared into "PC."
PC. A boring box, sold on speeds and feeds and gigabytes.
Still, there is hardly anything you own that is more personal.
Your personal computer is your backup brain. It’s your life and the life of your business. It’s your astonishing strategy, staggering proposal, dazzling calculation. It’s your autobiography, written in thousands of daily words.
Today HP is making the entire experience of owning a computer more personal than ever before. We are designing products that offer you ever greater power, simplicity, and security; all backed by a one-year limited warranty, the industry’s best. And we offer HP Total Care–expert services for every stage of your computer’s life, to help you configure it, protect it, tune it up, even recycle it.
Because when you own a personal computer from HP, you own something more that right to demand that the personal computer will finally live up to its name.
Very good. The research, we guess, was illuminating. PCs do create extraordinary value in the life of the consumer. Many of us would put ourselves in harm’s way to protect our computing devices. My little ThinkPad is my little think pad. I would be pretty completely thoughtless without it.
The agency or HP discovered the higher value of the PC. The HP website puts it this way:
This new HP campaign focuses on the highly individual and personal relationship people have with their computers, unique to each user. Whether what they are creating is a spreadsheet or a work of art, HP’s goal is to make the personal computer a more powerful personal tool.
But here’s the problem. HP does not appear to have stepped up. The new campaign does not herald hardware or software that actually makes the personal computer "a more powerful personal tool." Most of the fuss appears to be about a program called Total Care which gives better backup and repair.
Really. That’s it? What happened to "Your personal computer is your backup brain…your astonishing strategy, staggering proposal, dazzling calculation, your autobiography"? Until this brand promise is built into the HP PC, the ad is really just talk. Indeed, it is the abuse for which advertising is famously infamous: dressing mutton up as lamb. More exactly (mixed metaphor, me?), where’s the beef?
The options here are not hard to imagine. With the deep intellectual gifts at its disposal, HP could easily have offered hardware and software options that really do deliver against the proposition. How about software of the kind that MindJet creates? The "mind map" software really does make it easier to think. There are visualization technologies out there of several kinds that could be developed (or purchased) that would give HP machines a real claim to being "personal, powerful tools". All of us live in a wind storm of information. All of us use our personal computers to manage this chaos. How about a little help here?
It sounds like I am making the criticism that Bob Garfield brought against the BMW "ideas" campaign. Today, in Advertising Age, he insisted that the BMW campaign (from GSD&M) was cliched and without substance. There is, he says, no evidence in this campaign that BMW is in fact a corporation committed to innovation. I think he has missed the point here badly. In fact, something extraordinary is happening in the corporate world. It is growing ever more responsive in order to track the growing dynamism of the competitive world. This puts the nay sayers and the truly creative players at odds with one another. I think making itself the champion of creativity and dynamism is a strategic move for BMW. (Mr. Garfield says the campaign is a cliche from a 1950s Tony Randall movie. Can he really have missed that this world has changed beyond recognition?)
No, I am not insisting, as my distinguished colleague Tom Asacker sometimes seems to, that all branding has to be about a functional benefit, a utilitarian property. Sometimes the concept of the brand is the value of the brand, a value, in point of fact, that commandeers very nice premiums indeed. But in the case of the HP campaign we need something more than a general acknowledgement of the value of a PC. Because, very plainly, every single PC delivers this value, and a Total Care package is neither unique nor part of the real value add here.
We have seen Nokia claim for the brand some of the higher value delivered by the category. (See the post noted below.) There is no change in the Nokia bundle of utilities in evidence there. But the claim is made by an act of meaning manufacture of some subtlety and a good deal of depth. Nokia is made a brand that gets how the consumer uses technology and a match is fashioned between the most substantial benefits of the technology and the Nokia brand. The HP ad, on the other hand, tends to read like a lecture in how lucky we are to be using personal computers. I get that. I think we all get that. The question is, what has HP done to earn any of the credit.
With off shore suppliers, and lightening acts of reverse engineering, increasingly the best way to fight demotion to the commodity basement will be brilliant acts of branding. We may take the HP campaign as an object lesson, a demonstration of how not to do it.
McCracken, Grant. 2006. The Problem of Partial Ethnography. This blog sits at the… May 3, 2006. here.
McCracken, Grant. 2006. BMW claims meaning for the brand. The blog sits at the… May 15, 2006. here.
For the HP ad in question, see the back cover of BusinessWeek. May 22, 2006.
For more on the HP campaign, see comments on the HP website here.
For still more on the campaign, see the PR fact sheet on the HP website here.