by Stephanie Viscasillas


Jan 15, 20029 mins
Consumer Electronics

Tom Dolan had an identity crisis on his hands. In 1995, the executive vice president and CIO of Bethpage, N.Y.-based Cablevision had merged the corporate IS staffs of the company’s cable TV, retail and entertainment venue businesses into a single corporate department. But three years later, hardly anyone in the company saw it as a unified team. There was watercooler talk that his staff was insular, loyal to their old business units?Cablevision’s cable TV service, The Wiz’s electronics stores, venues Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall?and heedless of the greater corporate good. A survey of end users found most had little confidence that IS understood their business needs, much less who to go to if they wanted a project done.

At New York City-based Viacom, then-CIO Tom Espeland had a similar problem. In 1994 he brought the IS staffs of two big business units, Showtime and MTV, under the corporate umbrella after Viacom had acquired those companies. As Joe Simon, Viacom’s senior vice president of enterprise services, tells it, Espeland (who is now CIO of Bertelsmann eCommerce Group) needed to advertise the fact that IS would address enterprise needs while reassuring the individual business units that their needs would not be ignored.

Both men chose a strategy more common to selling consumer products than internal corporate services: They branded their IS departments. While not yet a common practice, marketing experts say that promoting a brand image for IS?and, more broadly, mounting a sustained internal public relations campaign?can help address a host of management challenges, among them business-IT alignment, budget approval and building support for big, company-transforming projects. And trumpeting IT successes can help balance the negative internal press generated by failed projects. Branding, its proponents say, can be useful not just during reorganizations but in any situation in which a department’s success depends on how much it’s trusted.

But branding can also backfire. At Cablevision, some early missteps threatened to increase internal resentment of IS, though today Dolan deems his Corporate IS brand a success. Meanwhile, Viacom’s current CIO, Joe Seibert, discontinued the company’s InfoWorks brand last year, following a merger with CBS. He concluded that internal customers no longer saw the group as part of the company but rather as outsiders ?no different from an IT services vendor.

It’s pretty obvious when a brand backfires, experts say. But how does a CIO know if a brand is a success? “You’ve established identity and image,” says Howard A. Rubin, executive vice president and research fellow at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group.

What’s in a Name?

Branding is a public relations technique designed to lure customers with a promise of reliability, says Peter Sealey, adjunct professor of marketing at the University of California at Berkeley. The promise of the name on the famously distinctive red-and-white can is that every Coke inside will taste the same. Branding also expands a customer’s associations with a product. When automakers brand their product, they’re hoping to sell fun, sex and adventure, along with their cars. Similarly, if your end users’ only image of your IS staff is as the people to call when their printer isn’t working, then they’re not thinking of you to help solve strategic business problems.

The challenge in branding an IS department is that there’s nothing physical to sell, says Bruce I. Newman, professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago. Without something tangible, like Coke, the emotional ties you build with internal customers take on added importance. That sounds touchy-feely, but getting your fellow executives to trust you should be the top priority in any CIO’s PR plans, Newman says.

Branding involves more than naming your department and making T-shirts. You must craft a message that isn’t gimmicky. CIOs have to lead the way, says Rubin. “[The CIO has] to be sure that the communication from IS sends the right message.”

How to Build an I.S. Brand

Dolan got the idea to create Cablevision’s Corporate IS brand from one of his project managers, John Blanco, who had worked on a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the company’s financial systems. Blanco, now the vice president of Corporate IS in the Business Alliance and Strategic Communications (BASC) division, had been frustrated that the people working on the project didn’t appreciate its importance to the company. So Blanco branded the group, calling it Meta4, because the four-member team represented different areas of IS and the business side coming together to become “something greater than themselves,” he explains. He made T-shirts with the slogan “One heart, one mind, one agenda” and created a special icon for users’ desktops that included the project’s brand name, the Compass Initiative.

Dolan, who felt that he was “dropping the communication ball” and that that was a large contributor to the company’s lack of confidence in IS, thought Blanco’s strategy could succeed companywide. So Dolan asked him to head a team that would be responsible for all communication from Corporate IS to the business units, and for branding all of Corporate IS’s major projects. In this manner, BASC was born.

One of Blanco’s PR projects keeps senior executives informed about Corporate IS initiatives. He took IntelliScope, a Web-based tool IS uses to track its metrics, and gave Cablevision executives access. IntelliScope reports each project’s timeliness, budget and tasks completed, and informs internal customers about the returns achieved on these investments. Joel Goldhammer, vice president in technology solutions at Plano, Texas-based consultancy AT Kearney, says that tools such as IntelliScope are crucial to the success of any internal public relations effort. In order to maintain an emotional connection to the IS brand, CIOs have to continually deliver tangible results, he says. As long as people know what IS staffers are doing and how they’re progressing, it’s more likely that they’ll trust the department to handle their future needs.

But there’s a wrong way to communicate too. “We’re very sensitive to the taste we leave in someone’s mouth,” says Blanco, now vice president of BASC. BASC stumbled early on when it produced a five-minute video that identified key IS projects and scrolled a CNN-like ticker line with information on the day’s progress at the bottom of the screen. The commercial ran on large screen TVs in the reception area of the third floor executive suite that are set up for each department to publish its operational metrics. But the execs thought the commercial was over-the-top. They began to wonder if the time and money it had taken to produce the commercial wouldn’t have been better spent delivering on promised projects. So BASC changed the material to a list of statistics about the IS department and its past successful initiatives.

Dolan says BASC is succeeding. He notes that several internal surveys have described an improvement in the alignment and communication between IS and the rest of the business. He says that fewer people are calling in random IS employees to fix things not in their fields of expertise, indicating a greater familiarity with who IS is and with what IS does. With BASC acting as a middleman, Dolan says that business-side employees now feel like they have go-to people for their problems.

Bill Mancusi, director of Cablevision’s Corporate IS help desk and field services, says that before BASC existed the memos the department sent to end users about new projects and services didn’t look professional and often overwhelmed readers with irrelevant information. “Sometimes it was embarrassing,” he adds. Since BASC took over writing these memos, end users have told Mancusi they understand the information they get from IS.

Know When to Fold ’Em

The results of branding IS haven’t been as positive at Viacom. CIO Seibert says the InfoWorks brand he inherited had taken on a life of its own, and that in his opinion the business units had become alienated from it. “If you’re creating a brand that separates you from [your] company, you’re challenging your ability to partner with your organization,” he says. At the time, Seibert says, InfoWorks was not just serving internal customers, it was selling IT services to outside companies. The brand had become associated more with these external customers than with the internal ones.

Meta Group’s Rubin says that’s one of the dangers of internal public relations campaigns. “You can build such a strong brand; you’re almost an external brand,” he says, and you may end up being viewed as an outsider. “Then you lose the collaboration and alignment you were setting out to achieve in the first place.”

Seibert agrees that to be a provider of choice is the goal of any good CIO, but he doesn’t see branding as a way to accomplish that. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in PR?Viacom’s IS department still produces a newsletter and provides other information about its activities as needed. But he says his internal customers don’t need a logo to recognize who is giving them information. In fact, he views branding as a way to cover over a poor reputation. Marketing experts agree branding has to be part of a larger effort to build legitimacy. Otherwise, the brand is just a name on a shirt or a fancy newsletter.

However, C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, a marketing company in Charleston, S.C., says it would have been a good idea for Viacom to continue the InfoWorks brand to maintain consistency. He says that discontinuing a brand abruptly can undermine the IS staffers morale, but phasing it out over time lets them get used to a new identity.

A successful branding campaign can build trust with business colleagues. In order to get the most out of a brand, however, CIOs need to ensure that their departments live up to the image they cultivate. A brand name and a logo help to shape a department’s image, but if IS doesn’t deliver on its promises, no amount of PR will save its reputation.