The digital age has created a digital marketplace. How a brand is perceived and communicated these days is radically different from the past. The creation of online communities, blogs, podcasts, websites – you get the picture – means consumers have taken control of what a brand means and stands for. Furthermore, the bottleneck between demand and supply is disappearing as technology becomes available to everyone. Catching up with HP Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Michael Mendenhall in the HP Halo Room – a room using high-definition cameras and screens to create a realistic online conference room – we got a rundown on what the future of branding (and everything else) looks like.
A market of one
A growing number of channels and platforms exist for customers to interact with a brand. The take-up of technology is also at an all time high. All of which means the ways customers are choosing to engage – or not engage – with a brand are changing. Michael: “Technology is allowing customers to fragment and choose how and where they want to engage with brands and their products and services. They are changing their behaviours very fast and a lot of companies are unprepared for these new channels.”
The digital consumer has also been born, producing a new generation gap within the marketplace. Whereas most people still tend to want to experience, see and touch a product before buying it, the new digital generation has no hang-ups buying online. “It is not that they will disregard conventional channels, but they are also very comfortable with purchasing products and services online”, Michael adds.
All of which means mass marketing is changing. The new marketplace is a market of one. “The landscape is changing”, Michael explains. “It is critical we understand how consumers are engaging with us and what their patterns and behaviours look like so we can be more relevant.”
Honour the past, don’t be a slave to it
Producing products, solutions and technology relevant to real life has always been a cornerstone of the HP brand. Trusted, Genuine and Inspired continue to be key company characteristics. HP has been operating for more than 70 years and has always been associated with innovation, inventiveness and intellectual capital.
Honouring the brand’s legacy, instead of being a slave to it, is essential to staying relevant. HP draws inspiration from its rich past of innovation, not its business practices of yesteryear. It’s constantly evolving, but always honours its past. “The important thing with heritage is that is doesn’t strangle your brand”, says Michael. “It’s about pulling the insights from the heritage and from the brand’s founders and using these to the brand’s advantage. It’s not about living in the past, it’s about pulling the innovative spirit forward and showcasing it. The pitfall in some companies is that they confuse operating principles, the way the company worked when it was founded, with heritage. We are in a different time now than when the company was created so it’s the spirit that must be taken forward.”
In creating a new branding drive for HP, Michael changed the game for drafting a branding blueprint. Many companies tend to ask and define themselves what the brand is: an inside-out approach. Michael prefers an outside-in formula, letting the people who buy and use the brand define what it is. “Many companies, when doing research about their brand, build what they believe is the hypothesis for the brand promise: its attributes, and how people think and feel about the brand”, he explains. “But a brand is not just about the consumers, it is about the brand’s reputation and what people think of it.”
HP spent more than three months talking to stakeholders such as community leaders, NGOs, government leaders, financial/industry analysts, customer segments, employees, suppliers and so on. In doing so, the company built up a picture of how these groups define the brand, what the most important brand attributes are, and how they rank these attributes. The company then identified common trends and correlations and based its branding strategy on this data. It also identified the differences between key consumer groups: differences which will be taken into account when mapping out a communications strategy targeting these individual groups. Michael: “This enabled HP to build a strategy to improve the reputation of the brand while mitigating any risks to the brand itself. The brand is the promise to the consumer, but it also has a value. That’s what you’re building and protecting against: the intangible value.”
HP also identified key ‘unstructured influencers’ – people who play a key role in forming opinion about HP but are not part of the traditional media or advertising structures. This saw HP target technology publishers, bloggers, online tech review sites and social networking spaces such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. “If companies believe they own their brands, they are mistaken”, ads Michael. “Part of it is now owned by the general public because technology has empowered consumers to take charge of that relationship. They are the gatekeepers. We are now living in a digital world so it is important to use these unstructured influencers to the company’s advantage. It’s how you engage and monitor this conversation that is important to the health of your company and its brand.”
HP’s dedication to innovation is evidenced by its string of 23 HP Labs. These research houses are charged with addressing the most important challenges and opportunities facing the IT industry over the next decade. Research is focused on five broad themes: information explosion, dynamic cloud services, content transformation, intelligent infrastructure and sustainability. While many companies have research divisions, HP’s commitment to leveraging its broad technology portfolio – together with the knowledge of its extensive pool of customers and partners – to drive high-impact research sets it apart from the rest.
Booting up the HP family
Creating a clear and consistent branding message is of crucial importance for a company as diverse as HP. As such, the branding story plays a key role in training any new employee at the company. As well as an induction training programme, HP has also set up a dedicated website ensuring employees are always engaged with the brand. Michael: “This online tool has become the glue between the employees and the brand. This is critical when you have such a diverse workforce in such a diverse number of locations as HP has.”
As for the future, Michael says consumers expect communications to be more personalised. “Brands need to be at the centre of customers’ consideration and to do that brands need to connect emotionally with their customers”, he explains. How companies engage with their customers online will continue to evolve and deepen. Keeping a global brand relevant to individual consumers spread throughout the world also looms as a challenge.