Think abut the IBM brand for a moment and what comes to mind? Solid. Corporate. Technology. Maybe even a little boring? Their acronym is likely the most well-known in the business world, with most of us able to respond, “International Business Machines,” when asked for its origin. IBM is a rock–a no-nonsense, highly trusted brand. After all, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, or so goes one of the all-time great business clichés.
But look a little deeper into the IBM brand and you’ll find in stark contrast to its generic sounding name one of the most innovative companies ever. Over the last 100 years it has stayed focused on providing practical business solutions to its customers in ways that touch each of us every day. Sure, they led the development of the first smart typewriters, mainframe computers and even low cost printers, but IBM also created the technology for UPC codes, ATM machines, the floppy disk, the hard drive, the magnetic strip, the SABRE airline reservation system, FORTRAN programming language, Watson artificial intelligence and even the financial swap. Whew.
“Providing business solutions” may sound like the mission statement for half the companies in the world, but IBM has steadily been a brand that can be depended upon to do just that. And that’s Lesson Number One from Big Blue: Stay focused. IBM has always sought to be a leader in the business technology of the day. But unlike other brands that attempt the same approach, their vision transcends the actual technology itself. So when they find themselves on the downside of a technology curve, they don’t go all Six Sigma and try to compete by being more efficient. They dump it and move on. They created the mass market for PCs and quietly exited the industry in 2004 when they sold their PC business to Lenovo. They’ve done the same with Lexmark printers and many other successful technical innovations over the years.
Lesson Number Two: Stay within yourself (Or don’t overpromise/overdeliver). While competitive slogans were on the order of “Take Toshiba, Take the World” and, “Compaq. Inspiration technology,” IBM ran the relatively tame “Solutions for a small planet.” If anyone was going to help you ‘take the world’ it was IBM, but their ‘small planet’ slogan acknowledged the challenges of the changing world we lived in without hyped bravado. Compaq is now gone, of course, while Toshiba is still a major brand, but far south of IBM in power and value.
Lesson Three: Brand from the inside out. According to their website, IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr. introduced an internal one-word slogan in the 1920s: THINK. It appeared in their company publications and on the walls of their factories and offices and became a mantra for their business. It was a steadfast reminder from the very top of the corporation: We value innovation and ideas. IBM was, in a sense, a manufacturing company that was entering the knowledge economy about 50 years in advance. IBM is also credited with many employee-friendly policy innovations including paid vacations, group life insurance, survivor benefits and equal opportunity hiring practices, which their founder described as less about rights and more about gaining a competitive edge that would allow them to hire the most talented people available.
Ironically, even though IBM gets branding right in many ways, their brand name has been the justification for countless alphabet soup tri-letter brands that subsequently struggle to build recognition and attach sufficient meaning to their acronyms. IBM used their full name from 1924 to 1946, and was already a global leader when they switched to IBM. In 1972 they introduced the 13 bar logo that they still use today. Oh, and in the 55 years since they changed the name, they have spent about 1.2 gazillion dollars in advertising to help us remember it. (Bonus lesson: Use initials if you’re already on top and have a ton of money. Otherwise, don’t.)
Other brands are turning 100 this year as well-Whirlpool and Nivea come to mind-but from a branding standpoint, IBM is the best centenarian of them all. One hundred years later their brand is still not really about the product, but about the thinking behind it. Happy birthday Big Blue, and many more.