Why IBM Cares About Character

IBM on Brand by VSA Partners
IBM on Brand by VSA Partners

I love this short (2:15) clip, the first in a new series called ______ on Brand, developed by VSA Partners*. It features IBM’s SVP of Marketing and Communications, Jon Iwata, discussing the way that the IBM brand is expressed. One statement that caught my attention right away was this:

“…we don’t try to manage the IBM brand, we try to manage our character as a business. And we’ve never defined IBM by what we’re selling.”

Iwata goes on to say that by defining a brand by what you’re selling, you calcify what that brand is in peoples’ minds. Then, when what you’re selling changes, as it eventually will, you’re left having to re-define what that brand means, and erase the old perception at the same time you’re instilling a new perception. He gives brief examples of things from IBM’s past and present that have, or one day will, no longer be the focus of the company – punch cards, the Selectric typewriter, mainframe computing, cloud computing, and analytics among them.

He insists that the character of the company is what defines the brand. I think the same could be said of Apple, which, while starting as a computer company, has morphed into the leading brand for technology and innovation. Apple is all about unleashing creativity and possibility, no matter the device or platform they are touting to do that.

Abe nailed this one. Image by VSA Partners
Abe nailed this one. Image by VSA Partners

I’ve had similar conversations with companies, non-profits and churches, trying to get to the heart of their organization. The heart, values, character and principles are the bedrock of meaning for any person or organization. How those are expressed will change over time, or the organization will wither away. The expression of the heart is not the heart.

Or put in the language that we employ as designers of marketing strategy, Strategy reflects the heart and soul of who you are and why you do what you do. Tactics are expressions that communicate that heart and soul in specific contexts. But tactics are never the heart and soul. This is why tactics can, and should change. Tactics change depending on how the heart and soul are best served and communicated.

This is why practically every client relationship we’ve had has started with a conversation about who a client is, why they are doing what they’re doing, and why that matters. From there, honest, compelling stories can be told that reflect the heart and soul of an organization. So thanks to VSA Partners and IBM for this look at the character of a brand, and for the succinct reminder to always keep in mind the most important aspects of ourselves, our organizations and our communities.