Note: Be sure to click on the links to view IBM videos and the progression of iSeries eServer marketing messages.
A few years ago, we were all again lamenting the AS/400's imminent death and IBM's horrible inability to market its "best kept secret." Then IBM rebranded the AS/400 as the iSeries, invested heavily in the R&D, and began a broad eServer marketing campaign that carved a recognizable niche for the venerable midrange server. Since that time, the marketplace's awareness of the iSeries has grown substantially, though sales revenues for the newer boxes are still not publicized.
The question on everybody's mind is "Is IBM's iSeries marketing campaign really working?" The answer may cause you to reflect on what's been accomplished.
How IBM Markets the eServer Brand
The first thing you have to remember is that IBM does not normally market individual platforms in the public media. Instead, it markets the eServer brand, which is composed of individual products. IBM solidified this strategy when it recast its entire line of eServers four years ago. Suddenly, there were "a-through-zSeries" eServers--black boxes that were almost indistinguishable from each other to the naked eye.
At that time, a lot of AS/400 enthusiasts bemoaned this marketing approach. They believed that the AS/400 (rebranded as the iSeries) was a server that deserved more attention because it had more potential than any of the other servers that IBM was manufacturing. At COMMON and at industry gatherings elsewhere, these self-styled iSeries prophets demanded that IBM reverse the course of its eServer marketing campaign.
Nonetheless, to IBM, this a-through-z approach seemed like a very good strategy for "quantifying" its eServer brand of hardware: It lumped all the eServers into a single brand, yet still allowed individual customer segments--customers that were platform-biased, such as the AS/400 community--to retain their sub-brand identities.
One Brand, No iSeries Ads!
One unfortunate result of this strategy, however, was a lack of iSeries-specific ads in the media channels. Consequently, there was very little excitement about the potential for the iSeries brand to survive the downturn in the server marketplace. "After all," conventional wisdom said, "customers don't buy servers! They buy solutions!" In IBM's mind, the platform was secondary to that decision.
Also, in IBM marketing's mind, the iSeries was a significantly more difficult solution for Business Partners to sell to an "unwashed" customer base--new customers that knew nothing about the value of an integrated business server solution.
As a consequence, the iSeries eServer sub-brand was provided with little or no control over its own marketing budget. iSeries management was concerned with production and engineering. Marketing was handled by the eServer Group. There were simply no resources to try something new for the iSeries.
One thing in 2000 was clear, however: Loyal AS/400 customers were not going to willingly abandon their preferred iSeries eServer platform. IBM's own market research had proven that AS/400 and iSeries customers were the most loyal partisans of any server sub-group in the history of computing.
This fact was--and continues to be--a conundrum for IBM. How were they going to get iSeries customers to let go of their boxes? The last time this level of customer loyalty reared its "ugly" head was when the System/36 became obsolete. Customers refused to move until IBM finally encapsulated the operating system of the System/36 into the AS/400. Then it took nearly six years to win those customers over to the AS/400. Now IBM was faced with a similar problem, and it did not want to relive that marketing nightmare. But it didn't know what to do about it, so it ignored the problem. From IBM's ivory tower marketing perspective, the AS/400 and iSeries brands seemed like lemons that were souring the entire IBM eServer marketing strategy.
Fortunately, some very brilliant person working for the iSeries group within IBM said, "If all you've got is a market lemon, maybe it's best to start selling lemonade!" And that's what the iSeries General Manager--with little or no marketing budget--decided to do.
Instead of pushing out materials that tried to make the iSeries seem to compete against IBM's other eServer offerings, the miniscule iSeries marketing team decided to try marketing the iSeries community. It decided to market the customer loyalty that the platform had created.
iSeries Nation Is Born
The first step in this ingenious campaign was to consecrate the iSeries Nation, a Web site where an informal group of iSeries customers could register to obtain news and information about their precious eServer platform.
However, unlike other IBM marketing Web sites, the iSeries Nation positioned itself as a sort of clearing house/fan club site that would keep customers better informed about their community via iSeries-specific chats, news, Webinars, and other special events. Desperate for marketing support, the customer base responded with hesitant sincerity. They dutifully registered, listened, chatted, complained, and plotted with the iSeries marketing team. It was an underground movement, partially sanctioned by IBM simply because it cost so little to sustain.
iSeries Nation has had its ups and downs. Today, the iSeries Nation Web site appears to be extremely dead. The Web site's current postings look as though they haven't been updated in some time. There is an incomplete calendar of iSeries events and little else. As a location for rallying iSeries loyalists, it now seems like a muffled voice sobbing in a wilderness of other IBM Web pages.
But the plan worked! Other activities within the iSeries community of engineers, developers, and marketers began to bear fruit, and though the iSeries Nation seems to be nothing but a relic today, it spawned a whole new energy for marketing the iSeries--one that even IBM itself has embraced.
Legends of iSeries Market Campaign
About the same time that iSeries Nation was launched, the iSeries marketing team created "The Legends of iSeries" mini-commercials. These vaguely humorous, low-budget Webcam videos dramatize true-life stories about the rugged and indestructible nature of the iSeries platform. These videos were never broadcast, but they became a sort of rallying point for iSeries customers, showing what a little bit of money could do to convey the message of the platform. Today, visitors at this site are still asked to submit their own stories about legendary iSeries encounters in the hopes that new material might be created for video. But the real campaign is over, and it worked. How?
Currently, the videos IBM has posted on the Legends site include a story about an iSeries that was lost for six years, one that was caught in a Force 2 tornado, and one that was brutally vandalized but "took a lickin' and kept on tickin'!" There's also an apocryphal story about where the iSeries was originally created, intimating that the architecture was designed in an abandoned lingerie factory.
The One They Didn't Shoot!
Today, looking back at the value of the Legend videos, many loyal customers have mixed feelings. One customer remarked to me recently, after re-screening these videos for the tenth time: "There is a story they never filmed. It was the one about the midrange server that even IBM couldn't destroy!" He then continued, "It should have been a feature-length film, but their marketing budget was probably too tight to produce it."
Indeed, that's exactly the message that IBM loyalists wanted to convey to IBM: "You can't kill this box! It's indestructible! Even you must pay attention to us!"
Yet, in truth, this is also the primary problem with these brand-loyalty commercials: They are focused upon a message of fear and catastrophe. They are not focused on the real value of the platform to the business community. Sure, the stories are entertaining, but who wants to buy a server--starting at $25,000 and going up--based upon fear and uncertainty. After all, though we may elect Presidents on that basis, companies don't buy server hardware that way.
Yet the message got through to IBM, and IBM's recent marketing attempts with the iSeries have been much more positive. The commercials have a significantly higher production value and a much stronger customer loyalty message. These are the iSeries.mySeries spots, and they show some newfound marketing commitment on IBM's part.
IBM began these commercials in May of 2004, at first featuring real people who truly do love their iSeries machines. One clip shows a customer hugging and patting the black server case, repeating enthusiastically, "I love it! I love it! I love it! "
Still, the response from my customer friend who viewed this first video was cynical. "Sad but true," he lamented last May when he saw it. "It is a long winter up in Minnesota!" So long had he been waiting for some good IBM marketing of this box that he was openly acknowledging that he'd given up hope for improvement.
Not withstanding his cynicism, however, this was the first real marketing message that IBM had put together in a long time that started to actually connect the true "value statement" of the iSeries with the incredible loyalty statements of its customers. It remains, in my opinion, a watershed advertisement for the promotion of this platform. It shows the iSeries starting to make the turn toward real marketing reconciliation within IBM.
But it is only the beginning.
Madison Avenue and the i5
In addition to this watershed ad, IBM also invested in some real Madison Avenue marketing. This marketing group--the ones who put together the IBM genie TV commercials--have bundled a high-production iSeries commercial into the "Cafe Society" TV spots that are broadcast in rotation through major metropolitan media markets. This is the first real money that IBM has spent on marketing that breaks new ground for the iSeries.
This video, introducing the iSeries i5, shows a group of office people in a cafe, discussing the arrival of corporate bigwigs. They speculate about why the bigwigs have shown up and who is taking credit for a recent consolidation of servers onto a single iSeries i5. The video reveals all the typical IT cynicism that my customer friend has expressed over the years. Yet it ends with a bit of a surprise. It's a true gem!
This video's message goes far beyond what past iSeries marketing messages have promulgated. Now, according to this marketing message, purchasing an iSeries i5 is not only a "safe" move, but also a "smart" move. Now, with the new i5 servers, the decision actually reaps praise from the head honcho! It's no longer a simple message about customer loyalty, or ruggedness, or safety. All those things are still there, but they're hidden or secondary messages. The real value statement of the iSeries i5 product is what it does for the business and what it does for the careers of the individuals who make the right decision.
Are We on the Right Path at Last?
The iSeries has had a rough marketing road to travel. Starting out with the most miniscule of marketing budgets, bowing to the needs of the eServer Groups marketing strategies, it has yet steadfastly refused to die.
IBM's iSeries marketing muscle has somehow managed to martial its paltry resources into campaign after campaign, slowly working its way into the mainstream of IBM. And for this accomplishment, IBM's iSeries management deserves high praise.
But is it too little too late? Time will tell, of course, and we are all awaiting announcements at COMMON and PartnerWorld to see where the next marketing challenges for the iSeries will be.
Today, at the very least, the platform has at last been set on some solid marketing soil, backed by money and extremely advanced and ingenious engineering. If anything, the iSeries' long sojourn in the marketing hinterlands is over. It's no longer IBM's best kept secret, and the legend continues to live and breathe.
Thanks for listening, IBM.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.