I pay a lot of attention to portable computing marketing trends and while some of the companies in this category have done very well, others are losing market share at a time when the category is experiencing unparalleled growth.
It’s this last category of companies—mostly hardware makers-- that astound me. Uniformly they appear to be practicing what amounts to “smokestack PR” in an era when new media outlets and marketing message opportunities are rapidly appearing.
At the heart of smokestack PR practices is the reliance on old media partners as a primary outlet for distributing product information (reviews, first looks and very rarely trend stories) to target audiences. The most obvious problem with this 20th Century approach to marketing is that yesterday’s top-ranked outlet for such information is now in bankruptcy and its page counts are plunging. But the contract-marketing firms who serve this segment seem unable to see the looming fatal tiger trap.
And the firms that rely on old school marketing share some of the blame for the problems. The “client” at such agencies has grown accustomed to product launches synchronized with new processors, core logic or display technologies, rather than real world usage patterns. All too often, the client wears blinders that restrict the view of his products to units sold according to form factor, or technical specs. Get the client to remove their blinders and look at products deployed according to usage and a new model suddenly appears.
And of course that model that pops out of the mist opens new venues for marketing messages. And those venues are often direct high-speed pipes leading to more unit sales that come at lower cost per thousands of customers. But selling a smokestack client whose proof of work consists largely of phone contact sheets with conversation summaries or a hurried conversation on the back nine holes of a suburban gold course is difficult.
Difficult, but it’s not impossible. And if the “client”, “agency principle” or “account team” is using the technology they’re selling or demonstrating they should be capable of seeing and positioning the advantages of new technology beyond static bench mark numbers.
I’m a pretty good case study in this. For a lot of my professional life, I wrote about and was married to smokestack marketing for portable computing. And along the way, I learned that form and function outweighed pure performance. Three examples:
+ my life with HP’s early OmniBook subcompacts. when I switched to Omnibook, I cut about seven pounds that I had to schlep all over the country. And I did it without sacrificing a single feature I needed to do well at my job. Sadly, the Omnibook ended up being miscast at “executive jewelry” rather than the breakthrough portable product it was.
+A two-year marriage to a Toshiba Portage with a “slice” bay and optional second battery. The first week I used this notebook I departed for a 10-day trip to Asia. While I was in Asia, I had to hit three important deadlines. The Portage performed flawlessly, despite some very rough handling by me at Raffles Bar in Singapore. When I landed at Narita in Japan I called my office and was told I needed to deliver a 2,500-word feature ASAP. I boarded a UAL 777, took my seat, booted up the Portage and pulled out the printed notes I needed to complete the assignment. Eight hours later, I finished and saved the story. That was my first true “transcontinental” experience with a second battery and it still shapes my thinking on how important battery life can be in portable computer marketing. Toshiba seemed to be more interested in positioning this specific Portage model as something that filled in several check boxes in a matrix than in positioning it as a system for growing number of professionals who needed a reliable notebook with extreme battery performance.
+ Lenovo’s ThinkPad X60s and X60 tablet line. As a Demo producer, I talked and wrote a lot about concepts I called “persistent connectivity.” “pervasive computing.” But it wasn’t until I started using X60’s with integrated EvDo wireless modems that I really understood how important this concept is to mobile professionals. And that realization hit me last year, while fishing at an out of the way lake in the Western Sierra when I received an urgent voice mail message from a family member telling me to “check my email now!” So, I hiked up to a hilltop near the Lake, booted the X60 up, logged on to Verizon’s access manager, signed up for a $15 day pass and connected to the EvDO network. The message was an urgent action request for me in my role as CEO of the first National Bank of Dad. I made the requested funds transfer, sent a text message alert to my off spring, hiked back down the hill and proceeded with the task at hand-- catching a limit of big fall run rainbow trout. In this application I could just as easily have been a drug company rep booking a large order for s new pharmaceutical, as I was a Dad getting money to a grateful child. Of all the portable hardware makers, Lenovo seems to understand that usage, not the latest and greatest processor drives applications and customer adoption. And it’s adoption that drives sales.
Service providers that understand the need for new approaches that emphasize usage over matrix stats marketing messages include: Craig McCaw’s ClearWire, the Sprint/Nextel/Intel WiMax alliance and Verizon. Because of this fundamental shift away from smokestack marketing communications, these companies are poised to create and maintain leadership positions.
Other people, including the fellow PCWeek Alum Rob Oregan here are much more eloquent about this message, but it’s been on my mind for a while.—Jim Forbes on 09/11/2007