Dude, where’s my VAR?

Not that I have anything against the Dimension, the OptiPlex, or any of the other machines in the direct PC company’s product line. I just don’t want anyone to think I’ve fallen victim to the marketing frenzy that has turned “”Steven,”” its TV commercial spokesman, into a teenybopper sensation of Carson

Daly proportions.

Steven’s laid-back approach has helped Dell’s market share double since January of last year to 16.5 per cent. Not bad for a company fighting it out in a consumer PC industry that recently saw its sales fall for the first time ever. The commercials have proven so popular that they have joined that rare group of promotional clips that cross over into mainstream culture. Comedian Jon Stewart, for example, referred to “”that Dell guy”” in a skit on Saturday Night Live this past weekend. In Vanity Fair’s latest issue, “”the Dell guy”” is on the in side of the pitchman category on the magazine’s In & Out list (on the out side: Carrot Top).

Media watchers, who always seem surprised when advertising actually works, sound as enamoured as the many young girls who reportedly flood Dell’s office with love letters. “”A modern-day Tom Sawyer,”” coos USA Today. “”The Maytag repairman of motherboards,”” enthuses CNN. He’s young, he’s cute and he offers an informed, non-threatening take on what can be an intimidating purchase. He’s Everydude.

The Steven commercials mark a distinct change in Dell’s former advertising strategy. A few years ago the company was focused on tarnishing the reseller’s image. Radio ads, for example, belittled nametag-wearing retail store employees, and buyers were encouraged to “”avoid the middleman”” by logging onto the Dell Web site. It must have to worked, to an extent: Compaq, HP and IBM all incorporated direct sales strategies into what were predominantly channel sales models, eager to reap the benefits of vertical integration for which Michael Dell has been lauded by his peers.

New York acting student Ben Curtis, who plays Steven, has not revealed how much he gets paid for the TV spots, but Dell would be wise to keep him handsomely compensated. He has given a face to the company and street cred to what has been a very corporate brand. There aren’t many parallels with other computer companies. Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, comes close, particularly the image of him smiling behind an iMac monitor displaying the words “”Hello. Again”” at the computer’s 1998 launch (There was no need for the “”again”” — he had them at Hello). But Jobs is not really young enough, and his appeal is limited to a unique segment of the audience. Steven, as a fictional character, can be whatever viewers want him to be — their college-age son, the pinup or the guy in their dorm (though it is hard to imagine Steven attending classes, let alone writing an essay on a Dell computer).

Dell’s challenge now is to strike that delicate balance between increasing Steven’s profile and overexposing him. Canadians know a lot about this dilemma, having witnessed the rise and fall of Molsen’s Joe Canadian character. It was funny the first time you watched it, and it struck an uncommonly patriotic chord. After a few months, however, his popularity grated, particularly when it was exploited by the IT industry. An Ariba conference in Toronto last year, for example, both opened and closed with the Joe Canadian ad. Visiting Ariba execs from the United States thought they were in on the joke; Canadians in the audience winced at the tired punch line.

Resellers and retailers may not have the marketing dollars to compete with Dell on the tube, but they can learn from Steven’s relaxed, engaging sales style. All some customers want is to feel as though they’re buying a computer from a friend. And dude, if they’re taking the plunge to buy in this market, they are.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
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