Reputation Rehabilitation

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It hurts to be disliked. When a whole market thinks you stink on an ice floe, you have polar bear sized problems.

A client recently engaged Silicon Strategies because the market didn’t think much of the client. Though their software was considered ‘competent’, it was also thought of as based on the previous century’s technology and was not rapidly updated. Our client had a well-deserved and growing reputation of holding onto former glory and not keeping up with new millennia mentalities. In short, the market had assigned them a negative brand.

For them, exhibiting at events was like walking into a singles bar and watching every woman in the joint walk out.

Our client faced this difficulty while preparing a new product which, at very least, brought them to par with competitors in important market segments. From experience we knew that merely introducing the product was not enough—the market was jaded and new/improved products were not going to reverse their negative brand. The market’s attitude needed changing before it would even consider receiving messages about a bigger, better, modern version of the smaller, lesser, ancient product.

They needed more than a squirt of cologne to avoid going home alone.

Silicon Strategies Marketing has faced this problem before. One of our earliest clients was SuSE Linux, before the Novell acquisition, before the Attachmate acquisition, before the WordPerfect acquisition (that last one was a joke, so nobody in Nuremberg should go nuts). At that time Linux was rising rapidly, Red Hat owned all the North American mindshare, and the market considered SuSE a “quirky little German software company that makes a good Linux distro.” As part of a broad strategy to gain a equal footing with Red Hat, we advised SuSE to communicate to different audiences (CxOs) about their strategic thinking since Red Hat could not stop talking to techies about how cheap Linux was. This strategy snippet avoided communicating to one part of the market (techies) that held the negative brand opinion about SuSE and begin a dialogue with buyers who did not (at that time) have an opinion or brand preference. All in all it worked rather well.

But Silicon Strategies Marketing’s new client did not have the luxury of a nascent market, one with major buyer genotypes ready for first impressions. The entire market—from strategic decision makers to end users—needed to have their attitudes changed and thus accept that the new offering was worth consideration. Our client needed cologne, a new suit, shave, haircut and a few months in the gym.

One important tactic is to first promote any company’s primary non-product strengths (other parts of the whole product mix), then their current product strengths. Doing so establishes in the markets mind that the company is alive and providing real value to real customers. Herein customer case studies and specific value propositions are convincing. All value propositions put forth should foremost be inarguable (Google is smart, politicians lie, Ozzy Osborn is insane, etc) and preferably ones that the market and buzz agents will echo easily and with conviction. For example, in the SuSE case study, we always spoke of the rock-solid structure SuSE’s software and how that drove large-scale purchases in Europe.

Associated with this tactic is the need to make several small statements over time. If a company went to a skeptical market with one large, complicated story, and nothing was heard from them again for a long time, the concept of viability would never stick. Corrective PR looks less like a flood and more like water boarding. Reversing negative branding requires lining-up many points of positive gospel and preaching it over time.

When introducing a new or revised product, the same applies with a modification. The market can only accept the idea of radical change when the change is so vast that the old way/product/method/party is clearly and hopelessly outmoded (remember when WebCrawler owned the Internet search market—pre-Google). With anything less than that, you have to pick narrow target market segments, hit them hard with all the new features and value propositions first, then address the larger market with the introduction and a steady drip of relevant information (which could be PR, direct mail, social … anything). The prioritized segments will carry and amplify brand believability while the rest of the market warms-up to the idea that your company and products actually mean something.

The key marketing lesson is that negative branding is earned and reversing it requires steady effort, not a single massive assault. It is like the fellow who walks into a singles bar and proposes marriage to the first attractive woman he sees – an unexpected, hasty promotion will not work. Expect a long courtship and one where you have to be a better man at each step.

Guy Smith is the founder and chief consultant for Silicon Strategies Marketing, a marketing consultancy specializing in strategy development for high tech firms. Guy has led marketing strategy for a variety of technology companies vending high-availability backup software, wireless middleware, enterprise software, infrastructure software, mobile applications,
server virtualization, secure remote access, risk management applications, application development tools and several open source ventures. Before turning to marketing, Guy was a technologist for NASA, McDonnell Douglas, Circuit City Corporate Headquarters and other organizations
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