Try to not get the wires crossed

Trish Lorenz asks why branding technology companies can be tougher than conventional consumer products

Technology is a vital component of all our lives. We are all dependent on and, to varying degrees, proficient with a huge variety of technology products. Yet the companies behind these products often remain faceless and personality free.

Players in this sector are becoming increasingly aware, however, that a strong brand can be the difference between long term success or failure. Last month saw the launch of BT’s Openzone service (DW 19 December 2002), with branding by SAS, and in the autumn Roundel presented first concepts for E2V Technologies’ brand identity, as part of a £100 000 contract. Design is moving up the agenda.

Creating an effective brand for a technology company can be more challenging than working with a straightforward consumer product. Designers face a tough task communicating complex technology to audiences that are often technologically passive.

The primary challenge is the complex nature of the products. SAS creative director Gilmar Wendt says they are often of such complexity that most people are vague not only about the technology, but also its benefits.

‘There is a lot of talk about the high licence fees paid by mobile phone operators for the next generation networks (3G), but few [people] understand what the technology will actually mean to them, let alone how it will work,’ says Wendt.

Roundel strategy consultant Ian St John agrees branding a company in this sector can be a more difficult proposition and feels the intangible nature of technology adds to the problem.

‘It’s not always a product you’re selling. You’re selling cleverness, skill, and ability. It can be more difficult [to brand] because you can’t really talk directly about product or represent what the company does in a physical, practical sense,’ says St John.

He suggests consultancies need to consider a company’s values, ‘how the business thinks and acts’, rather than delivering a product-focused solution.

‘Pictures of widgets aren’t the issue,’ St John says. ‘It’s about personality and values, rather than technology.’

Wendt agrees that a focus on technology in marketing material or branding is counterproductive, but says design groups need a solid understanding of their clients’ technology in order to simplify the issues for consumers.

‘Ericsson and Sony [for example] are part of a huge and complex joint venture, but once you understand the essence of their business you can simplify it down. If you give too many details everyone is confused. The challenge is bringing out the essence of the offer without oversimplifying or patronising,’ says Wendt.

He feels that complicated business propositions can be simplified through use of graphics and case studies.

‘In Sony Ericsson’s annual review we avoided any technical language and instead used a diagram with three simple case studies showing how the new services can be used by different people in their everyday lives,’ Wendt adds.

Landor London managing director Charlie Wrench believes this focus on people is key in order for technology brands to achieve real differentiation.

‘Since the late 1990s, new technology companies have become better known but, typically not more differentiated. [Which is because] technology brands tend to position themselves at a rational level, based on their [product’s] performance.

‘It’s hard to differentiate simply on a technological basis because technology is often copied within months. You have to create an emotional aura,’ he adds.

Wrench advocates a ‘laddering mechanism’, making the journey from conveying a technological advance to something that gives a ‘meaningful benefit to people’s lives’.

Blumedia head of strategy and development John Parnell agrees. When the group created an identity for Quintel, the mobile mast provider, it chose to ‘distance Quintel from typical technology companies’. According to Parnell, the group introduced a rainbow to the marque and kept the name ‘deliberately simple’.

‘[It was] a move away from technology selling itself, into something softer, universally relevant and with an environmental touch,’ he explains.

‘You need to address public interest, not just [sell] another heavy technology company.’

‘We want people to think twice about the type of telecommunications company that it might be,’ Parnell adds.

Wrench cites Belgium’s telecoms provider Belgacom as another example. The company’s old identity was a ‘formal, remote, robotised marque, a technical drawing of a technical function, focused on wires and phones rather than people’, he says.

The solution was to create a more accessible [brand], that ‘celebrates the optimistic possibilities of technology, not “we are a telephone company”,’ according to Wrench.

This may seem a big challenge, particularly if there is a perceived corporate ‘cultural divide’ between the client and the design group. But St John says that with a collaborative approach, many technology clients will accept a more creative solution.

‘Collaboration is very important. You need to put in the legwork before you begin design work in order to produce results. [It’s important] to get people to think about the way the company operates and talk about it in a different way. This broadens the solution they will accept,’ he says.

Technology will continue to play an important part in our lives. But it will be interesting to see whether the design message – talk about people, not technology – shines through and brings real personality to a sector that, for the most part, remains a nuts-and-bolts environment.

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