The Great Reinventors: Best & Worst Tech Company Rebranding Efforts

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A brand defined as a complex set of inter-related components that overall set an expectation for a customer experience. A brand involves the name the logo, the colors, the tone, the messaging, and most importantly, the actual products and services that it delivers.

myspaceYour brand is your most valuable asset. Lose it, and your company is lost. It’s a tricky, delicate process to rebrand or extend your brand, says Nikki Tanis, president of Tanis Communications, a marketing and communications services firm that specializes in brand strategy. She notes that baby food maker Gerber tried to apply its brand name to adult foods and failed for a variety of reasons.

In the case of some of the tech brands we’re going to discuss, Tanis said the companies had to make a judgment call that balances consumer brand awareness versus brand positioning. A company needs to balance the benefits of instant name recognition and any positive attributes with the potential negatives associated with that name.

Many of the companies we’ve noted have or had high brand awareness with target customers and negative attributes associated with them. “So in each case the companies would have assessed the trade-offs and determined the brand awareness plus positive attributes plus alignment with core products and services outweighed any negative perceptions,” she said.

“They also would have had a very deliberate plan to build on the awareness, the positive associations, and a few core attributes and potentially extend the brand’s reach into either different markets or into an expanded service offering,” she said.

Rebranding is risky business. It’s usually driven by a chief marketing officer and has to be a company-wide affair, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group. It can take anywhere from $20 million to $100 million, and often times companies are in a bad situation and don’t have the money to do the move effectively.

“You have to put all your resources on that mission and adequately fund it. To make it work you have to adequately resource it and put the whole company on it. You almost have to put the company into startup mode and restart around that new focus,” he said.The results for tech firms? Let’s take a look.

Apple

AppleOne of the best rebrandings ever and an example of what Enderle previous stated. When Steve Jobs made his MacArthur-like return in 1997, he found an unholy mess of a company that tried to be too many things to too many people and did all of them poorly. There were dozens of Macs, most of them redundant. Apple was in pointless businesses like printers.

One of the first things he did was end two of Michael Spindler’s losing strategies: licensing the OS, ala Microsoft, and pursuing the enterprise. Jobs eliminated vast numbers of products and redundant staff and made Apple a company of a few products done real well.

It is a story of legend. After his return, product managers were briefing him on the confusing tangle of Apple products, and after hearing enough, he went to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. Above the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro,” and he put “Desktop” and “Portable” before the rows. That was it. Make four great products, one for each quadrant, and cancel everything else.

You know how that story turned out.

AOL

AOLA case of a company doing its job just fine, but the market shifted under it. When cable companies and telcos began offering broadband in the late 1990s, the writing was on the wall for a dial-up Internet provider.

So AOL has rebranded and relaunched as a massive content provider, conducting a number of acquisitions of major publishing houses. This includes The Huffington Post, Engadget, TechCrunch, and the local news publisher Patch.

The verdict remains mixed. A savior investor, Starboard Value, issued a scathing nine-page letter last December criticizing the company for spending $1.7 billion on acquisitions that have yet to pay off while the company lost millions. AOL has sold off bits and pieces to survive. Many techies wish they would sell off the WinAMP player they bought in 2000 and have mismanaged ever since. WinAMP could be what iTunes and Pandora have become.

Hotmail

hotmailMicrosoft totally let this one get away from it. Hotmail, or HoTMaiL as it was originally rendered, was one of the first Web mail services out there. However, sloppy management turned it into a have for spammers and malware, and when the much better-managed Gmail came along from Google, Hotmail turned into a ghost town except for the scum and villainy who exploited it.

Last year, Microsoft made a serious attempt to clean up the mess. It introduced new technologies to greatly reduce spam and go tough with the crooks and punks using the service. It claimed to reduce spam by 97% and introduced some nice new features, such as newsletter filtering, categorizing mail, scheduled cleanup and a new flagging system.

But Microsoft just added to the confusion. It had another mail service, Live.com, from its hastily-launched Live services. So this year, Microsoft consolidated Live.com and Hotmail.com into a new service, Outlook.com. Borrowing from its Office mail client, Outlook.com also supports Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, and Skype. It’s almost got the basics of Facebook itself, with the ability to view pictures of your friends, send messages, get status updates, chat, and make calls. Plus it’s integrated to some degree with Office apps. How’s it doing? Microsoft hasn’t said yet.

MySpace

MyspaceNot the first social network… many consider GeoCities the first, but GeoCities was very basic, primitive, had a confusing URL structure that drove people crazy and it never evolved much, which is why it’s dead. MySpace was a little more dynamic than GeoCities, but it fell out of favor when it earned a reputation as a teen site that no one over the age of 25 had any business being a part of. Once Facebook opened up to the public, it was all over for MySpace.

MySpace fell into disuse and was eventually acquired for a pittance from News Corp by a group led by musician and actor Justin Timberlake and it is relaunching next year. MySpace had been popular with musicians, who used the site to post music streams and communicate with fans, and it seems the new owners are building around that.

The new MySpace will borrow from Pinterest, Tumblr and About.me, allowing users to log in via Facebook and Twitter in addition to creating their own profiles on MySpace. It will be built around musical interests, like creating, sharing and discovering music playlists, finding music events, and interact with artists, something Facebook does, but not very well. We’ll see how things go when it launches later this year.

Quarterdeck

QuarterdeckThis author had a front row seat for this debacle because he worked in the PR department at the time. Quarterdeck was a one-trick pony, known for its outstanding DOSS memory manager, QEMM. With the release of Windows 95, QEMM’s days were numbered. Quarterdeck’s old DOS UI, DESQView, was DOA.

A new CEO was brought in and his solution was to buy like Paris Hilton on a shopping bender. There were some good homegrown products, but the acquisition strategy was completely random.

But nothing caught on and QEMM was the money maker, until a devastating (and in this writer’s opinion, inaccurate) review in InfoWorld killed what sales remained of the product. The finishing blow was spending $70 million on Mustang Software, which made the ProComm communications software for calling BBSes. Yeah that was a brilliant acquisition in 1996 with the Internet coming on strong.

In 1995, the company held a party at Comdex to relaunch the firm, with the new stylized logo. We even paid to bring in Star Trek actor John “Q” de Lancie. By 1998, what was left of Quarterdeck was bought by Symantec.

Sun Microsystems

Sun MicrosystemsSomething was broke and Jonathan Schwartz tried to fix it, but he fixed the wrong thing. The end result was an ignoble ending for a Silicon Valley legend. The company founded as Stanford University Network by a group of Stanford University graduates pretty much invented the Unix server and client market and its servers ran the early Internet back in the 1990s.

Sun was hit hard when the Dot Com bubble burst in 2000, and it never recovered as a little operating system called Linux that ate its lunch. Linux nibbled around the edges of Sun’s hegemony, along with HP, SGI and IBM, all Unix vendors, but Sun and SGI were pure Unix plays and felt the impact the most.

McNealy stepped down in 2007 and the company’s number two man, Jonathan Schwartz took over. While McNealy was a hardware guy, Schwartz was a software guy. He proceeded to turn Sun into a software company, but Schwartz couldn’t just throw out what was then a $10 billion a year business.

His efforts included spending a ridiculous $1 billion to acquire MySQL, which had sales of about $10 million at the time. He devoted a ridiculous amount of time and energy to open sourcing the Java language at the time when 64-bit x86 server processors were starting to gain real traction and Sun’s SPARC-based hardware business was being eaten away on all sides.

Now, x86 servers run 90% of all servers out there, including most e-commerce sites, and Sun is just another piece of Oracle and continues to lose market share.

Nokia

Nokia

Just as Lindsay Lohan is an experiment in how much abuse the human body can take before it finally fails, Nokia is an experiment in how many times a company can attempt to retrench, screw up, and try something different.

The company didn’t embrace flip phones when the Motorola Razr was all the rage, it ignored the U.S. forever, at one point it tried to ditch the carriers and go the direct sales route, selling unlocked phones directly to customers. That failed spectacularly as well.

Plus, it stayed with the ancient Symbian OS way too long, then it kept jumping around different alternatives. Maemo? MeeGo? Windows Phone 7? Windows Phone 8?

How often can a company screw up and stay in business? We’re finding out.

Napster

Napster

The Internet has always been a copyright-free zone. In the old days of the Usenet newsgroups, many alt.binaries groups had a description that said “Gigabytes of copyright violations.” Napster wasn’t the first product to enable Internet piracy, but it was the first one that stood up and was so obvious about it.

The RIAA went after the company and since Napster really had no business model – all it did was facilitate connections between two strangers. Napster had no chance against the legal onslaught and shut down.

Since then, the name has been passed around several times. Roxio bought Napster’s brand and logos at a bankruptcy auction and Roxio which used them to rebrand its Pressplay music service as Napster 2.0. That went nowhere in the face of iTunes, and in 2008, Napster was purchased by retailer Best Buy for US $121 million. Three years later, Best Buy sold Napster to Rhapsody, and Napster was consumed into the Rhapsody service.

Symantec

SymantecThis company has gone through many permutations in its own right, and has had quite a few successful reinventions. It began life as a creator of developer tools for artificial intelligence. For a while, it was a major developer tools vendor, competing with Microsoft and Borland in the Pascal, C++ and Java markets. Those tools, though, wound down and faded from the market in the late 2000s.

In 1990, the company purchased The Peter Norton Group, which specialized in PC management and maintenance tools. For the next two decades, utilities would be as much of a business as developer tools, and eventually surpass tools.

From the late 1990s on, Symantec went on an acquisitions binge, acquiring enterprise security and data protection tools, including Altiris, Sygate, Veritas and PGP. But that market seems to be fading on Symantec. Sales are off, and this past summer, CEO Enrique Salem was unceremoniously fired. Instead of an enterprise firm, Symantec is now struggling to reposition itself as a mid-market solutions provider. It remains to be seen if the company can pull off yet another reinvention.


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