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In 2003, tech-centric ads go mainstream

Tech companies are relying on mainstream media more than ever not only to push their products, but to build brand awareness. Expect to see even more mainstream tech ads in 2004.

After a long day at the office, the last thing IT pros want to see on TV is an ad for the PDA they just spent three hours configuring, or for the software vendor whose product support people were no help that day.

However, in 2004, that's more likely to happen than ever before. Many technology vendors are now pushing their messages through mainstream mediums like television and radio.

Technology vendors in 2003 created a slew of ad campaigns for public consumption, including prime-time advertisements that assume Law & Order fans know what Linux is, and that Sports Illustrated readers want on-demand computing. Heavyweights like IBM and Intel Corp. have spent millions on mainstream ads this year, while lower-profile firms like CDW Corp. and WebEx Communications Inc. have also made advertising splashes.

The Net is in, e-mail is out

Dana Houghton, Intel's media director, said that when it comes to Intel's advertising strategy, the Web is now as significant as any other mainstream medium.

"We can't speak for other companies, but we place quite a bit of importance on it," Houghton said. "People rely on Web sites for information gathering, comparative shopping, and all the stuff we used to have to do with literature and brochures. It's so easy to provide that type of info on the Web."

E-mail, on the other hand, is "a very dicey proposition these days," especially for attracting new leads, because spam has limited its effect, said Forrester Research analyst Jim Nail.

Nail said that a much better strategy is to use e-mail to communicate with existing customers on an opt-in basis.

"That's as strong as ever, and users draw a very clear distinction between the stuff they've signed up for and the spam that comes in unrequested," Nail said.

These companies realize that television and radio ads often reach far beyond the products' potential customer base -- namely technologists and IT managers -- but that's part of their plan. Jim Nail, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, said that when tech companies use mainstream ads, it's simply about branding.

"There's something to be said for raising awareness among senior executives who don't necessarily read the very targeted publications, so [advertising in] The Wall Street Journal, or on CNN, CNBC, and those types of outlets, can raise a particular company's profile," Nail said.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest technology advertising campaigns in 2003 was Intel's "Unwired" initiative, which sought to raise awareness of its Centrino processors for notebook PCs, and the potential benefits of wireless networking.

Dana Houghton, Intel's media director, said that for the last decade the company has been using mainstream advertising, specifically on television, for its Pentium series of PC processors. Following that success, he said, it made sense to repeat the process with Centrino.

"We think that it's a way to build value for the products that are behind the brands we sell," Houghton said. "When people see that Intel logo on a product, people associate that with great value in the product they're purchasing."

The Unwired campaign, which cost $300 million, consisted of three major elements, said Intel's worldwide advertising manager, Sean Connolly:

  • Creating awareness via mainstream TV, print and Internet ads.
  • Educating the market with a series of special publications in partnership with Wired Magazine, The New Yorker and PC Magazine, as well as broadcast outlets like CNN.
  • Enabling potential users to experience wireless computing firsthand, through three categories of promotions: "Mobile Experience Zones" at major events and transportation hubs, the "Unwired Developer Tour," and Sept. 25th's "One Unwired Day," when subscription-only wireless network services across the U.S. were free for the day, courtesy of Intel.
  • Intel chose not to use a spokesman in its Centrino campaign, unlike technology companies such as T-Mobile USA Inc., which runs ads featuring actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, and WebEx, which has a campaign featuring comedienne Lily Tomlin portraying her renowned character Ernestine, the telephone operator. For Intel, Nail said, passing on a spokesman was the right call.

    "With something like Centrino, there's a lot of explaining to do about what the benefits of wireless are," Nail said, instead of creating awareness of an already well-known product. "That's why using a spokesperson isn't the right thing to do."

    However, Nail was critical of many wireless carrier advertising campaigns. Though their ads get plenty of attention and are often amusing to watch, Nail said the ads fall far short when attempting to demonstrate usefulness.

    "T-Mobile's are some of the worst," Nail said, making special note of its "Ivory Toad of Shanghai" TV spot, which shows a yard sale devotee discovering a million-dollar artifact. "When would I be going to a tag sale and shooting a picture to send to an appraiser at Sotheby's? Give me a break."

    Effective or not, there is no doubt that there will be even more mainstream technology advertising in 2004, Nail said.

    "Advertising is one of the first things that gets cut when business goes down," Nail said. "In general, companies are certainly more optimistic about sales in the future, and with the analyst community more bullish about revenue, that gives them a little more latitude" to advertise.


    Learn more about Intel's mobile technology in our Featured Topic on Centrino.

    Read our review of T-Mobile's Sidekick Color.

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