IBM Marketing SVP Iwata On Character And The Marketer

Jon Iwata of IBMAt last weekend's Association of National Advertisers (ANA) event, the presentation by IBM's Jon Iwata, who is the company's SVP of Marketing and Communications, wasn't what one might expect from a 100-year old company known for international business machines. It was about character.

Iwata (see his bio) is a lifer at IBM having started there in 1984, which is amazing for at least two reasons. First, many of us cannot imagine working at the same company for 27 years. Next, he’s a marketing guy – surely, he should have been fired six or seven times by now.

Like many of the presenters, Iwata said his company’s goal was to serve the customer, and that it all began with "character" – a mantra that the company used to rebuild the brand after it exited the personal computer business in the early 2000s.

Iwata addressed the ANA audience:

"We did not focus on brand recognition or brand visibility. Our goal was relevance.

Now, relevance is a different game than you would acknowledge, because frankly, we may be able to buy (…) recognition.

But, you determine whether IBM is relevant to you, to all the things that you care about. And we realized that if we were going to think about brand relevance, we have to stop talking about brand itself, and start talking about something deeper. And that is our character.

Corporate character, like personal or individual character, proceeds from within and describes what we believe and value..."

Iwata went on to describe a 2003 company event that encouraged its workforce to engage in an open discussion about values and ethics that further informed "character".

Overall, if there were themes of the ANA event last week, it was "open" and "ready to connect" as brand marketer's outlined the spec for their own brand marketer APIs and a willingness to wrap new data sources, both human and technological, into their marketing strategies in order to serve the customer (first) and propel the business forward (second) - whether you believe it or not, that's the big brand marketer's pitch. IBM is no different though you sense their process for vetting strategy is like an enormous pachinko game where attributes and variables are tested and re-tested. And today, the pachinko prize for IBM is "character."

Later, Iwata discussed "The Smarter Planet" which is the brand campaign related to ways IBM can serve the marketer and the enterprise, in general – and, yes, the planet, too. "Character" remains central:

"Some people have said Smarter Planet is an interesting brand campaign, it's an interesting sustainability campaign, and it's an interesting demand generation campaign. I appreciate that. But really, it wasn't designed to do those things. It proceeded from this notion of who we are and what we uniquely exist to do.

(…) My own view is that, sadly, perhaps too many in marketing and public relations and corporate affairs and lobbying and all the rest, spend too much of their time manipulating the shadow and not tending to the health of the tree.

What we're trying to get with corporate character is not brand and culture inside and outside ‑‑ they're indivisible. (…) The ways that people get information and make decisions, the need to provide a consistent view of the enterprise is as important as the need we all have as CMOs, to have a consistent view of the customer.

And so, corporate character is great. It has a definition depending on the application. We use a simple framework at IBM to help us do that. And it seems so simple as to be almost childish. What does it mean to look like, sound like, think like, and perform like IBM? But of course, when you go to fill out that framework, you have great debates, because these are decisions that ultimately drive decision-making choices.

Looks like IBM, pretty straightforward.

Sounds like IBM?... Do you sound like an engineer? Do you sound like an entrepreneur? Do you sound like a consultant? Do you sound like an old person? Do you sound like an American? Do you sound like you're lecturing? Do you sound like you're conversational or approachable? These are choices. We can translate these things all the way through - even to how we perform as a company.

The goal is unity [and] the goal is not uniformity.

So, we think that by teaching ourselves corporate character rather than enforcing a kind of design guideline system or brand system on the workforce or the marketing function, we've achieved something which is very important in this world, called transparency, and that is to be an authentic enterprise."

IBM is using some marketing chocolate milk (character) to ease marketer fears about making a huge investment in Big Blue software and services that will likely inform marketing decisions and the ultimate success of any enterprise – or not - for years to come. That’s the gap IBM is trying to close with the marketer. Given Big Data’s influence and the understanding of how gobs of data is or should be driving all strategy, marketers need to find solutions with which they are comfortable.

Iwata later moved the discussion to IBM’s recently released CMO study which Iwata said gathered insights from 1700 CMOs who each agreed to one-hour interviews. And, what do you get when you interview 1700 CMOs for an hour? Anxiety. Iwata said about the study:

"It drips with anxiety about change. As one of my colleagues put it, the bottom line of the study is, the market is moving faster than the function. It's moving faster than our organizations are. You see and hear the things that no doubt you're talking about here in the conference - about data, about channel, about social, about changing demographics, all these things. What do we do about them?"

Iwata emphasized IBM’s focus on research, too. The company wants customers to feel that IBM solutions are not coming out of the ether but through careful understanding of the marketing challenge ahead. Whether it works, only time will tell. But, it’s a good pitch when the company commits to investing millions in big data research.

At the end of the presentation, ANA chief Bob Liodice fielded a question from the marketer audience: "How do you get management to invest in the new and innovative that may have no benchmarks or results versus continuing to invest in what you've done before?"

I can hear the audience member: "Character is great but..."

Iwata responded that it may take an incremental approach:

"There is a need for ROI and the push into data and analytics give us more rigorous science to quantify the efficacy of what we do. Frankly, we shouldn't be afraid of being accountable for the big investments that all of our companies make in marketing. That's why we have to have mastery of these intervals and measures affecting those. But we also focus on the R (return) and not so much on the I (investment), because new and innovative things can now be done without a lot of investment, which is the phenomenon of our times. Everybody has a printing press, a broadcasting studio. That's true of individuals by the billions, but also true of our companies and we don't fully realize that.

How do we convince management? It begins with us saying, ‘Let's just try these things out. Let's learn very quickly and go from there. Show management and show ourselves that these things are powerful and we've been doing that.'"

By John Ebbert


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