by Michael Schrage

Is It Time to Brand Your IT?

Nov 15, 20036 mins
Consumer Electronics

Building a brand is one of the darker business arts. Are brands more about making people think thoughts or feel emotions? Is the essence of a brand absolutely, positively captured by slogans like “It floats!” or “The Real Thing” or “You’re in good hands”? Or do those tag lines merely exist to semantically reinforce what really expensive ad agencies like to call “the brand experience”?

Heck if I know. But I’m confident that the vast majority of CIOs don’t bring much of a branding sensibility to the work they oversee. I asked one Fortune 100 CIO how he would describe his IT department’s “brand” within the enterprise. He looked at me as if I were a moron?I know that look; I see it a lot?and sniffed, “You mean, what’s our reputation?”

“No,” I persisted. “If your IT shop were a firm within the firm, how would you describe the brand value of your group and what it delivers?” After a pregnant pause, he answered: “I would say that we are an agile, world-class CMM Level 4 IT function that is both responsive to and collaborative with our business partners in a timely, cost-effective and quality-oriented way.” He said this with a straight face.

Now it was my turn to look at the CIO as if he were a moron. I had worked with this company. Let’s just say the “brand experience” his internal clients described was something less than the breathtaking “brand value” he so eloquently promoted. Because I’m basically not a nice guy, I started asking other CIOs and IT executives this question. The answers?after the obligatory “You must be kidding” look?were either variations on this “mission statement” theme or simple statements about what they thought was their group’s “core competence.” This was true even for companies built on brand management, such as Procter & Gamble. The most impressive response was, “We’re the best partner for data-driven business initiatives.”

The Value of a Brand

Because I’m really not a nice guy, I also asked executives and midlevel managers at a variety of companies the obvious counterpart question: How would you describe the “brand value” or “unique selling proposition” positioning of your company’s IT department?

What Your Users Think of You

No one looked at me as if I were a moron this time. To the contrary, snorts, smirks or smiles prefaced every reply. “Our IT’s brand proposition?” said one HR executive. “It’s got to be, ’We’re always looking for ways to outsource to India.’” Another was: “Gotta problem? That’s why we have the help desk. Call them.” Or how about, “You’re not just a partner; you’re a beta site” and “You bought it; you support it”? Several responses revolved around, “Yes, we can do that for you if your really want?but not at that budget and schedule.”

In other words, internal customers and clients tended to focus on promises unfulfilled or pathologies they disliked. To be fair, almost every internal customer in my unscientific sample acknowledged what their IT departments were trying to accomplish. But they chose to focus on describing their actual experiences as the brand value. Of course, none of these IT departments actually had an internal “brand manager” or brand-building campaign. Which begs the obvious questions: Should CIOs think of their operations as an exercise in building a brand? What if a CIO had a brand manager responsible for internal promotion of the IT brand within the company? If a CIO hired an ad agency to come in and create an advertising and promotional campaign within the company, what would that campaign look like? What might it promise? Who would be the key targets? How would success be measured?

How to Change a Bad Rep

These questions may seem rhetorical, but they aren’t. IT is under fire in global enterprises and for good reason. IT’s value within the organization seemingly oscillates between strategic opportunism and necessary evil. IT is alternately regarded as critical differentiator and costly commodity. CIOs could do far worse than go through the disciplined exercise of submitting their strategic and operational aspirations to the rigors of a branding methodology.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that IT must be branded within the company or that a CIO would be wise to steal away a brand manager from P&G or Nike or Coca-Cola?or from his own company!?to bring a branding sensibility to the department. Even more important, I’m not saying that CIOs should behave as if IT needs to be internally branded.

Building a Brand

However, I’m completely comfortable asserting that a brand perspective can bring organizing?and reorganizing?principles to IT that could make it far easier to manage expectations as well as implementations. Creating a brand for an ERP upgrade, for instance, might help anesthetize the pain of adjustment. After all, internal clients are consumers and users of IT goods and services. They see IT vendors conduct brand-building campaigns. Their expectations are being dynamically influenced by what they see in the press and on the Net.

Indeed, every individual a CIO deals with inside the company and out has been a target of a branding campaign. People are used to seeing and experiencing advertising, marketing and promotional campaigns. They’ve been?we’ve been?conditioned accordingly. Doesn’t it seem odd that we run our internal IT operations in a way that effectively ignores this reality? Isn’t it ironic that some of the most gifted and expert branding organizations in the world seemingly ignore that expertise in their own internal organization?

In the same way CIOs are wise to imagine what they would do if the departmental budget was cut another 25 percent or increased by another 15 percent, they would learn an awful lot if they pictured their portfolio of services and deliverables in the brand context. Is IT a single brand? Or a family of related brands that should be appropriately segmented? Again, I haven’t a clue.

But I do know that the ability to build a positive brand identity within the company would lead to new and improved information technology.