Apple is one of the few marketers that has managed to break the mold. The company introduced a Macintosh computer decades ago with a handwritten “hello” across its screen. Today, Apple has literally humanized its Mac and its generic competitor, the PC, by assigning human characters to embody each computer’s attributes. In Apple’s advertising, “PC” is a bespectacled business geek, while “Mac” is a young, laid-back consumer. They parry back and forth, and “Mac” always gains the upper hand.
Personifying computers is understandable because consumers have direct, tangible interactions with computers and similar products. But how can branding add the human element to something as nebulous as networking? Ask Cisco.
Cisco deserves credit for humanizing its product by boldly branding itself as “the human network.”
Cisco Systems, Inc. was founded in 1984 by two Stanford University computer scientists. The name originated as an abbreviation for the nearby city of San Francisco. The scientists first ran cables between two buildings on the Stanford campus, connecting detached networks first with bridges and then routers. This gave birth to the multi-protocol router.
Twenty years later, Cisco was a US$ 25 billion company with over 38,000 employees. Cisco finished its 2007 fiscal year with US$ 35 billion in sales and 63,000 employees.
In 2006, Cisco launched its “human network” campaign. At the same time the company updated its somewhat stodgy logo to a contemporary, stylized version of a bridge.
Here’s how Cisco describes “the human network”:
Welcome to a place where we're all connected.
On the human network, anything is possible. Explore the ways Cisco technology is transforming everything from your sports teams to your living room. And see why when we're together, we're more powerful than we could ever be apart.
Welcome to the human network.
Cisco’s brand message is as important as its media selection. Cisco, once known only to IT and networking managers in business, is taking its “human network” positioning directly to the consumer. While the campaign began in late 2006, Cisco today continues to run “human network” ads on television, in magazines, on the web and even on mobile phones.
One television spot shows a young man, a relief worker in Cambodia, communicating via a Cisco video link-up with his family in the United States. That brings networking right down to a very personal level.
In India, a significant technology market, Cisco created a country-specific television ad that showed people in an Indian village viewing a wedding in London via a Cisco-enabled network. In China, the human network campaign was tied to an online platform that facilitated the exchange of knowledge via video sharing. In Canada, travelers at the Toronto airport who had Bluetooth devices received messages generated by three Cisco posters.
Why target consumers when Cisco’s networking products are primarily found in corporate networking closets and computer rooms? In an October 2006 article that appeared on CNET, Cisco’s chief marketing officer, Sue Bostrom, said, “Technology that we use in the office is seeping into our everyday lives. And technology decisions that used to be made by the enterprises are now being driven by end-user demands.”
The Cisco brand is one the consumer will soon recognize for another reason. The company has been aggressively acquiring other networking brands, a number of which have strength in consumer and small business/home office markets.
Linksys, acquired by Cisco in 2003, is a leader in wireless routing and other home networking products. Scientific Atlanta, acquired in 2006, is a name seen on the cable set-tops and modems in consumers’ homes. Webex, acquired in 2007, is a leader in online on-demand collaboration applications and very strong in the small business market. It wouldn’t be surprising if these and other acquired brand names were gradually replaced by the Cisco brand. In fact, in early 2008, reports began surfacing that Cisco was planning to eliminate both the Linksys and Scientific Atlanta brand names.
While Cisco sells hundreds of physical products, it has studiously avoided promoting hardware in its corporate advertising. This is a strategy that comes from the top.
Cisco CEO John Chambers is a walking, talking version of the human network, according to journalist Carmine Gallo (“How Cisco’s CEO Works the Crowd,” BusinessWeek, October 11, 2006). Gallo says: “What does Cisco sell? On its face, Cisco sells hardware that most of us never see — routers and switches that link networks and direct traffic over the Internet. But listen to a Chambers presentation and he sells much more. Chambers sells the dream of a world made better by Cisco's hardware, a world in which the Internet improves the way we live.” About the company’s marketing campaign, Gallo adds: “It's very consistent with the way Chambers speaks on the topic, selling the benefit of his technology by telling stories about how it improves people's lives.”
This is a good lesson for all brand marketers. With your CEO as a brand champion, you can gain the kind of traction for your brand that vaults you ahead of your competition. As Cisco has discovered, putting a human out front talking about the brand makes the brand all the more human.