Perhaps the most flattering thing you could say about IBM is to repeat the old business maxim that “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.”
In the roughly 100 years since the company first went into business selling time clocks and scales, it has built a reputation for selling reliable technology that over time has become so ubiquitous that making a purchase from another vendor has come to be seen as taking a risk.
“We are trustworthy," said Ann Rubin, IBM’s VP of branded content and creative. "We’re going to provide expertise in various industries, and we’re going to be on the leading edge of technology. And those things aren’t going to change."
In recent times, though, this label of extreme trustworthiness has presented the company with something of a challenge when it comes to marketing itself to a younger, more digitally focused audience.
After all, Millennials represent the next generation of business leaders, and they are constantly in search of something fresh and new. How, then, can does a brand go about sidestepping decades of dominance in the computing systems market and instead focus on its qualities as an innovator in the technology space?
The answer, increasingly, has been through content marketing.
Whereas IBM might take a more button-up tone when advertising on The Masters Golf Tournament, it is reaching a younger audience in places like BuzzFeed and Tumblr to show them how IBM’s technology can be used for fun applications like high-speed video gaming and creating the perfect recipe, not just for solving esoteric business problems.
“What might change is how we communicate, as well as our tone and the vehicles that we use," Rubin said. "As people are consuming media on different platforms, we want to be there.”-
In many ways, IBM’s content strategy revolves around showing people the power of its technology rather than telling them about it.
Since the company prides itself on innovation, its marketing team tries to come up with outside-the-box activations that show off this spirit.
For instance, IBM brought Watson, its Jeopardy-winning artificial intelligence computing system, to last year’s South by Southwest festival. Only this time, Watson’s cognitive computing skills were being used to power a food truck.
If you’re unfamiliar, Chef Watson, as the computer program is known, uses complex algorithms and a data set of thousands of recipes to determine which ingredients taste good when paired together — this way, it can spit out its very own recipes. Working with chefs from the Institute of Culinary Education, IBM set up a food truck where people at South by Southwest could tweet which ingredients or types of food they wanted to eat, and Watson would devise a unique recipe fitting those criteria.
Rubin describes the activation as a huge win, as it allowed IBM to show off its ability to be nimble in responding to social media in front of a startup audience that might have otherwise bristled at the presence of a legacy tech company at SXSW.
Today, Chef Watson lives on in the form of a web app IBM put out in collaboration with Bon Appétit magazine that allows people to plug in ingredients and discover new recipes on their own. In both the app and the food truck, Rubin says Chef Watson is an example of how IBM uses content to make complex technologies easy to understand and to get people thinking about how technology might be able to help their business.
“It enables people to say, ‘Wow, Watson has all this information, all I have to do is put in a few things … and Watson gives me hundreds of recipes to choose from. Gee, I wonder what else cognitive computing could be good for?’” Rubin said.
Though IBM works hard on owned channels like Chef Watson and its surprisingly quirky Tumblr account, it is also very active in sponsored content, having run sponsored stories across a range of publications that include Forbes, BuzzFeed, and Wired.
In addition to allowing IBM to benefit from the wisdom of experienced publishers, these partnerships allow the brand to follow through on its belief that it needs to go to people wherever they are, rather than waiting for those people to come to IBM for content.
IBM knows it needs to go to people wherever they are.
With technology becoming an increasingly big part of how we work these days, Rubin says that IBM’s audience is virtually everyone who is in business. That’s why the brand sees fit to target young professionals by sponsoring a series of BuzzFeed stories on the Millennial workplace, while also speaking to more business-savvy Forbes readers with a detailed story on the use cases for a certain type of cloud computing.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an age thing … it’s more a mindset of people who get what tech can do for their business and who don’t want to be left behind,” Rubin said. “Because if you don’t engage in technology, no matter who you are or what kind of company, you’re going to be at a disadvantage.”
As for whether these content initiatives are working, IBM has what Rubin described as “a pretty complex metric system” that focuses heavily on whether people are engaging with and sharing the stories.
What the brand wants to see is people who watch a video about women working at IBM and then click a link included with the story to read an interactive list of innovations created by female employees.
This ability to give people additional pieces of content, after all, is one of the great advantages of publishing on the web.
“Once you create a TV spot, you put it on the Masters, and in five days, The Masters is over,” Rubin said. “In digital, we can go deeper, deeper, deeper into content. That’s something that’s really important to us — always giving people a path to more content.”
Generally speaking, each piece of IBM content is created with a specific platform in mind, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or a media outlet IBM is partnering. Usually, though, the brand will also create platform-specific, supplemental pieces of content to promote something it’s doing across all of its platforms. For instance, the “Wild Ducks” podcast, which highlights the activities of IBM’s clients, can be found on the company’s website, but Tumblr users might be led to it by a graphic featuring a quote from a recent episode.
Though IBM sometimes pays for social distribution, it does so on a case-by-case basis, with the understanding that it will only be successful if it is able to execute well across paid, owned, and earned media.
“People say, ‘Oh, social media is free and easy,’ and it’s not,” Rubin said. “You need to think about it, you have resources behind it, you map it out, you have paid behind it, and it all works together in an integrated ecosystem.”
Indeed, IBM needs to be hitting on all three cylinders — paid, owned, and earned — in order to overcome the challenge of being a brand that doesn’t sell most of its products in stores, where people would have the chance to interact with the brand in person.
For Rubin, this is one of the main reasons IBM strives to do things — like the Chef Watson food truck — just a little bit differently from what other brands are doing online. So far, this approach seems to be going pretty well.
“We need to do things that are a little bit unique and innovative and on different social platforms,” Rubin said. “I think it all goes together with that question of ‘How do you show the company in a different light?’ Well, it’s using these different platforms where people want to engage.”