Managing in a Sea of Uncertainty: Leadership, Learning, and Resources for the High Tech Firm

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Paradoxically, the allure of riches brought waves of talented people, but studies suggest that employees are ultimately most rewarded? The focus?

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The result? Current investigations suggest that Wall Street analysts, immersed in conflict of interest, issued false reports to encourage small investors to buy stock. The "Business as Web Site" Approach. Lacking sound business plans and virtually ignoring even basic human-resource and customer-service requirements, most dotcom leaders focused on expensive, splashy Web sites and a polished "Gen X" image? Unfortunately, simply getting funding and building a technology infrastructure doesn?

There has to be a need and a purpose to the enterprise aside from spending someone else? Why else would someone become? The Burn Rate. Billion-dollar statistics tell the tale of many dotcoms? Many dotcoms seemed more like groups of kids spending lavish allowances while playing with someone else?

Compare this with more patient large companies, or the thousands of small businesses whose owners start and maintain companies on personal lines of credit and shoestring budgets that demand mindfulness about which expenditures are the most cost effective. Interestingly, these same small businesses have provided the majority of all net jobs over the past decade.

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The Speed Trap. Yet the faster these organizations moved, the more they ignored signs of severe employee burnout, pending droughts of funding, poor customer service, unfocused leadership, and diversions from the original vision and mission for those that had bothered to define them in the first place?

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The Lemming Syndrome. When the dotcom era blossomed, thousands of investors were only too happy to support an e-commerce start-up or anything with dotcom in the name. The words "online" and "e" gave companies the Midas touch, regardless of industry, resulting in a kind of greed-induced mass hysteria. Rather than following a vision specific to and suited for the organization, dotcoms followed the few seemingly successful e-enterprises hoping to ride their wave. Witness the practice by high-tech vendors of giving away software and hardware products in order to penetrate a market rapidly.

However, sheer presence and satisfactory performance do not ensure that users will become loyal customers—that is to say, customers who are eager to buy products, not just customers who feel compelled to buy them. Sooner or later, customers will defect. Monopoly power built on overwhelming market share is not, in the end, a promise of value. People will buy because they feel they have to buy, but they will not become loyal customers.

Powerful high-tech brands build equity through a process we illustrate in our brand pyramid, which is based on materials developed by Larry Light. Many high-tech managers are most comfortable in this space, and, unfortunately, it is where many high-tech products reside. Increasingly, however, high-tech purchases involve not just technologists but also business managers and end users, who are far more interested in what a technology product does for them than in how it works. As high-tech managers come to understand this, many start changing the way they speak of their offerings. But it is not enough.

The first two levels of the pyramid still embody the elements of product competition, not those of brand competition. Competitors can continually match and leapfrog over one another by offering better and more features and by identifying the benefits of their products for customers.

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For instance, two manufacturers make Unix-based servers that not only perform similarly but also produce the same benefits for customers—the ability to run data-mining applications, executive information systems, and the like. How High-Tech Brands Build Equity To build a strong high-tech brand, managers need to answer the following questions:. The third level of the pyramid is where a company can truly differentiate itself from competitors by providing emotional rewards for its business.

How do customers feel when experiencing the functional benefits of the offering? How do customers feel when experiencing the benefits of the brand? Do they feel confident? But goods and services that reside in that third level are indeed developed and positioned as a way of fulfilling a promise of value to selected customers, not simply as technologies in search of a market. They shop for well-known, trusted brands. Declining profit margins in the business as a whole, fueled by such strategies as companies actually giving PCs away to encourage end users to get on the Internet, have left the PC market barren of strong brands.

Compaq is currently pinning its hopes on translating its promise of value for higher-end technology applications. Time will tell if Compaq can leverage its promise of value in this very different market. The top two levels of the pyramid illustrate the concept that powerful brands attract and hold customers with their particular promises of value. At the top level of the pyramid is the personality of the brand. The next level of the pyramid describes the deeper values that the brand reflects.

We are particularly interested in reflecting values of the target customer that will create and reinforce brand loyalty. Taken together, these two levels of the pyramid define the relevant and differentiating character of the brand. Focusing a company around brand management—getting from the bottom two basic levels of the pyramid to levels three, four, and five—does not mean tearing up the organization chart, forming yet another set of teams to explore a new initiative, or instituting a gaggle of new processes.

Business-planning processes and topics are the same in a promise-centric company as they are in a product-centric organization. A brand plan is a business plan. The fundamental difference between a product-centric and a brand-centric company lies in the attitudes of the people throughout the organization—not just in the marketing department—in their understanding of what it means to shift from selling products or services to selling a promise of value.

What do customers think of the company and its offerings? Do they see offerings as brands or merely as technology products?

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Consider, for example, the experience of one manufacturer of Unix-based servers. In a very competitive marketplace—where nearly equivalent boxes are produced by HP, IBM, Silicon Graphics, and Sun—managers at one of these companies conducted a series of focus groups with server buyers and users around the world. They found that those people had many and complex perceptions of the competitors, the offerings, and the promises they felt the competitors made. In other words, they had a lot to say. The most intriguing data were about the kinds of promises of value the customers wanted but felt some vendors did not or could not deliver.

Armed with the data, the company formulated several alternative promises of value and tested them out in a second round of research. Do the internal and external impressions match?

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If not, how do they differ? This step requires managers to make three crucial decisions. First, they must understand how the potential customer markets are segmented and choose the segments they wish to serve. Second, they must determine what type of promises are feasible to offer.

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Third, they must set a branding policy—that is, they must decide whether and how much the equity of any one subbrand will be shared with other subbrands and with the parent brand. Older, established high-tech companies like IBM can generally rest a great deal of equity at the parent-brand level. But at times the parent may wish to allow a subbrand to build an identity of its own. Such branding decisions must be handled with care.

The trick is to enhance the promise of value for selected customer segments without jeopardizing or diluting the core promise. In some cases, of course, the company will want to maintain a strong connection between its parent brand and a given subbrand. GroupWise, NetWare, ManageWise, and BorderManager, for example, are all Novell subbrands, but it is not clear how much customers associate those products with the parent company or whether Novell could be building stronger brand equity if it made the connection between the subbrands and the parent more explicit.

It may help at this point to try to distill the promise of value to its essence. For example, if the promise boils down to superior service and support, then those capabilities must be fully developed, maintained, and monitored. Resources should be directed not only at creating a team of fully qualified service technicians for postsale service but also at developing Web-based service capabilities. Service and support should also be built into technology offerings in the first place.