The show must go on-demand

There’s always some kind of preamble when a vendor comes here for a visit. It usually consists of a company overview or history that we, like institutional investors during an AGM, tend to snooze through. But there was no sleeping on the job in 1999, when an IBM executive was determined to prove

they were all about the Internet.

It was a meeting about wireless technology, if I remember correctly, but the executive was more concerned that I know that it was IBM who coined the term “”e-business”” back in 1997, when I first started covering the IT industry. I had no way of disproving her, nor it seems does anyone else. U.S. law prohibits “”descriptive”” trademarks that become a part of everyday usage, which is perhaps why Big Blue didn’t do more to control it — a lesson Donald Trump learned the hard way when he tried to gain rights over “”You’re fired!”” earlier this year. What IBM nonetheless built is brand awareness, and a considerable part of its Global Services business, around the e-business moniker — even after the dot-coms it might have nurtured turned out their lights forever.

That pride of authorship makes it all the stranger to see IBM abandon “”e-business”” entirely with its new campaign, which debuted in Canada on June 1. E-business has been replaced with “”on demand business,”” a term which has been most closely associated with its utility computing services. The ads — featuring a red computer button marked “”on”” — attempt to show how IBM businesses meet deadlines within their budget. As an Ogilvy & Mather executive told the Globe and Mail last week, “”It’s no longer technology for technology’s sake. It’s all about the business and how technology can help achieve business results.””

We’re starting to hear that sound bite so often that it’s almost as common as e-business itself. Although there was certainly a time when IT managers built more redundancy into their networks and had purse strings loose enough (thanks to Y2K) to try out unproven products. You’d almost think someone in the mid-1990s had run a campaign with a “”technology for technology’s sake”” tagline.

The on-demand campaign might be appropriate for an audience of Canadian small business owners who lack the IT expertise of an enterprise CIO, but without providing more detail about what’s behind their product offering, Big Blue might be short-changing itself. Like Sun, which is running a campaign that focuses on cutting IT budgets, it needs to avoid something so generic that it becomes meaningless. The on-demand ads, for example, tell us that “”China is on,”” “”Acura is on”” and “”Fighting cancer is on.”” It all sound scarily like those weird TV ads Cisco Systems ran a few years ago, asking “”Are you ready?”” of befuddled viewers who had never heard of Cisco before.

In IBM’s case, there’s actually good reason to delve more deeply into its R&D accomplishments. While Microsoft and Intel have created some important software and hardware firsts, IBM remains arguably the industry’s most innovative company. Its patent portfolio includes discoveries in self-healing network architecture and advanced computing systems in the life sciences field. The breadth of its inventiveness is such that it’s hard to represent as a brand value. That may be why, even in the e-business campaign, technology was never at the forefront.

The genius of the e-business TV spots were their ability to empathize, with near Dilbert-like exactness, the inanity and frustrations of the corporate enterprise. We saw managers who demanded things move as fast as he could snap his fingers. Others gathered in a boardroom, only to wonder who called the meeting in the first place. These companies, like most others, were clearly “”off”” and by capturing their problems IBM made a convincing case that it could get them running as fast as a T1 connection.

In the end, an IBM on-demand business of today should look a lot like an IBM e-business of last year. The company has already proven that by trying to think like its customers do, it can grow its market share as one of the world’s premier IT consulting firms. Those customers aren’t interested in using a catchphrase to describe themselves, they just want to be successful — a word that will outlive anything IBM’s ad agency comes up with.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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