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Branding and Potlatch Marketing

(Introduction to a work in progress.   Posted November 4, 2003)

 In a previous essay – Multidimensional Positioning of Enterprise Technology – I outlined a theory of positioning for the enterprise high technology market.  Here I do the same for branding.   Once again, concepts from consumer marketing need to be greatly transformed before they are relevant to the enterprise technology market.  

Consumer branding generally has one or two basic purposes.   

  • Consumer branding communicates and supports a product’s positioning.  For example, Crest proved in the 1960s that it was the best possible toothpaste for my dental health, so just in case that’s still true I keep buying it today.

  • In some cases consumer branding directly adds psychic rewards to the consumption of the product.   This serves to increase – in some cases greatly! – a  product’s value to the customer.  Classic examples include Tiffany jewelry, Gucci handbags, Nike shoes – or premium-priced vodka, which by law has to be actually indistinguishable from other vodka.


Typical branding tools include advertising and other vehicles for messaging.  Also important can be a distinctive look and shape to the product or packaging, which serves to remind consumers of a product’s brand identity. 

The emotional and artistic aspects of branding are much less relevant to the enterprise IT market than they are for traditional consumer products.  Million-dollar software packages are bought based on the economic and career benefits to the purchasing organization and to the individual decision-makers, and are delivered on a few nondescript CDs.  Psychic rewards branding has very limited applicability to enterprise technology.  And classical branding techniques serve to support only a limited portion of an enterprise products complex overall positioning. 

Nonetheless, branding does play an important role in some IT markets.  It’s reasonable to say, in enterprise technology and classical consumer markets alike, that branding is pretty much just a diffuse form of messaging.  And so it follows that enterprise technology branding basically equates to diffuse messaging that is relevant to enterprise IT buyers.

In practice, this falls into four primary categories: 

  1. Image marketing to create an impression of overall leadership and success. 

  2. Brand extension, in which a leader in one category seeks to leverage that leadership in a related area.

  3. “We get it” messaging, positioning the company as particularly clueful about, e.g., the needs of a specific customer industry, or about a particular computing platform.

  4. “Fun”-based marketing, often geared to hard-core techies and hackers rather than to the blander executives who make most IT purchases. 


The most important of these is the first:  Marketing to create an image of leadership and success.   For a number of reasons, “leaders” in technology markets are more likely to attract customers, business partners, and even investors.   Indeed, I suspect that a great deal of image marketing by technology companies can be equated to a potlatch – a feast given by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest at which chiefs would prove their status by showing how many valuables they could give away or simply waste.  Similarly, a lot of technology marketing carries little more message than “We can afford to spend lots of money on these ads and parties, so obviously we must be powerful industry leaders.”



For more information, please contact Curt Monash.

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Updated: 05/11/04