DreamWorks, HP Ring in Era of 'Super Customer'

Most IT vendors use their annual conferences to tell attendees what customers are doing. This year HP brought DreamWorks, complete with Alex the Lion, on stage at Discover 2012 to discuss how HP's helping it realize the goal of real-time animation. CIO.com columnist Rob Enderle sees this exemplifying the era of the 'super customer' relationship.

At the annual Hewlett-Packard event, HP Discover 2012, CEO Meg Whitman did something unique, turning the floor over to DreamWorks CEO Jeffry Katzenberg for half of the keynote address.

I've never actually seen this done before—not sharing the keynote, mind you, which is common even for companies like Apple. While most IT companies offer the stage to other IT executives, HP shared with one of its most important customers.

This showcases a subtle industry change. The big companies are looking for ways to more tightly connect with their big customers in order to avoid competitive migrations and assure future growth. It appears we are moving into an age when customer loyalty may be the biggest competitive differentiator. As a result, loyal customers could become the most effective part of a firm's sales effort.

Let's explore how HP demonstrated that concept this week.

Whitman Long on Framework, Short on Vision

A CEO keynote at a customer conference such as HP Discover should do two things—set a framework for the show, so attendees can better figure out what areas of core coverage to engage with, and provide a vision for the company going forward. The latter can be important, as it helps IT folks frame things in the interval between conferences and figure out where vendors like HP intend to focus.

More from HP Discover 2012: Whitman Works to Assure HP Customers as Company Cuts Staff

Whitman did a good job framing the key topics of the conference—cloud services, security and data analytics—and explaining them, respectively, as the place data is going so it can be everyplace people want it, ensuring that only authorized people get that data and actually being able to something with that data to make better decisions.

This should sound familiar. It's the basic framework for every large-scale IT vendor at the moment. To that end, Whitman peppered her chat with examples of customers who adapted and, as a result, experienced both massive financial benefits and short-term investment recovery.

On the other hand, the HP Discover keynote lacked real vision. That isn't uncommon in situations like this, though. From my days at IBM, I don't recall former Chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner ever doing a real vision pitch. Like Whitman, Gerstner came on board to right the ship and reestablish strong executive leadership that would have the time to develop and articulate a vision. Eventually, he did.

DreamWorks' Katzenberg Brings It Home

Then again, perhaps the vision was more subtle and tied to HP's customers. That seemed to flow through the Katzenberg keynote. Here he praised HP for making DreamWorks possible and for helping create up-and-coming technology that would help DreamWorks corner the animated video market.

CIO 100 2011 Winner Profile: DreamWorks Animation SKG

This was actually kind of fascinating. Lions began and ended the Katzenberg talk. The first, appearing in a video, was a real lion that Katzenberg brought on stage a decade ago and subsequently treated the CEO as a cat toy. In the video, two handlers saved Katzenberg from the frisky lion, who served as a metaphor for technology, with the handlers representing HP.

Then, at the end of his talk, Katzenberg brought on stage someone dressed as Alex the Lion from the upcoming DreamWorks film Madagascar 3. The message: It's better to have a lion that can do what you want than a lion who tries to eat you.

Alex the Lion at HP Discover 2012
Jeffrey Katzenberg, Alex the Lion and Meg Whitman on stage at HP Discover 2012. (Photo courtesy of HP. .

As it turns out, these two lions, along with Intel, are working on technology that will let DreamWorks animate in real time. Right now, it takes an animator two weeks to create three seconds of video. Real-time editing will turn this into a two-minute job. DreamWorks is already the largest animation firm of its type and the most consistent user of 3D animation. This latest technology would only increase the studio's profitability and dominance.

The Decade of the 'Super Customer'

What made this all particularly powerful was that this wasn't the CEO singing her own praises or those of her company alone. Whitman did a little of that, but this was a large customer saying a technology company was critical to its survival and part of its strategy to dominate its market.

In a sense, HP went from the partner that sold DreamWorks the same bullets it sold everyone else to the partner that helped DreamWorks develop its very own bomb. That's a whole different class of vendor. It also implies that most HP customers likely are using only a fraction of HP's available capability—which, if used properly, could help those customers dominate their markets as DreamWorks is.

That is the power of the customer as advocate. HP could say this, and, coming from a vendor, it wouldn't mean that much. A customer saying the same thing and demonstrating the result, however, demonstrates the massive power of the customer's voice and drives home a point that HP, or any vendor, can't credibly do. This further showcases that this is becoming the decade of the "super customer," and DreamWorks clearly made the cut as one of the most powerful this week.

In the end, the customer is more powerful than the technology. That made the keynote at HP Discover 2012 both unique and powerful.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

6 digital transformation success stories