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IBM's ad campaign may have missed its mark

It's not everyday you see a television ad hawking Unix servers during Law & Order. But, you may be seeing more of them.

Last week, viewers of the weekly television police drama, which airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. EST on NBC, saw the makings of IBM's new ad strategy highlighting its line of Unix servers, namely the RS/6000.

Last month, IBM announced it would start advertising the Unix-based systems, in untraditional places. Untraditional that is, for IBM, who has been accused for years of advertising its high-end systems to the people who already own then. But, lackluster sales, particularly in the mainframe markets, may have convinced Big Blue to rethink its ad strategy. Or, perhaps the complaints from users worldwide about botched marketing campaigns have not fallen on deaf ears afterall.

While the campaign is a step in the right direction, this new campaign fails to promote the AS/400 and S/390, much to the dismay of the midrange sever loyalists, but not to their surprise.

"This is pretty much like the Magic Box campaign, except this time at least there's some brand recognition," said Steve Croy, manager of technology, Seta Corp., Boca Raton, Fla.

The campaign, an obvious, direct assault against Sun Microsystems, uses such slogans as "It's easy to eclipse a Sun," IBM's new Unix servers lead the Net's next generation" and "Click the sun you want to eclipse." The ads highlight the Unix servers as powerful e-commerce tools. IBM stands at third place in the $30 billion Unix server market behind Sun and Hewlett-Packard.

IBM purchased full-page ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, as well as banner ads on Web sites for Forbes, EarthWeb and others.

George Weiss, a Gartner Group analyst who follows the Unix server market said such advertising helps to create a brand and get the message out to people. "IBM has had an uncool image," Weiss said. "People buy according to brand recognition. Even if a product has great technology, it will slip through the cracks."

While advertising esoteric Unix servers towards a general audience is unusual, it's not unprecedented, Weiss said. "We have seen this before with the marketing of the AS/400 and the Magic Box campaign," he said.

The AS/400 was released in the late 1980s with much fanfare including television ads featuring cast members of the M*A*S*H television show. By contrast, the more recent Magic Box campaign was IBM's ill-fated foray into advertising servers on television.

Oddly enough, however, despite all the hoopla surrounding IBM's ad campaign, users and analysts alike were hard pressed to find the Unix ads anywhere.

More visible are IBM's ads touting "extreme business." These ads promote IBM as the company with the e-commerce edge. The ads do not name specific systems, said James Mason, an AS/400 consultant and president of Cape Cod Bay Systems. "It looks like the AS/400 is getting a lot of ad dollars, however, when it comes to promoting it as an extreme business tool," said Mason, referring to this ad campaign and other avenues IBM has been taking to promote e-commerce within the AS/400 community.

The engine driving Unix server sales is e-business, said Bill Claybrook, an Aberdeen Group analyst who is helping IBM write a white paper on Linux. IBM has to convince prospective users that they have the product to respond to the rapidly changing marketplace and to users' rapidly changing needs, Claybrook said. Customers need to know that IBM will be there as their companies grow and succeed.

"They are not totally there," Claybrook said. "But they are engaging the open source community with offering Linux. This should help them attract a younger following."

But, Croy, says he doesn't believe for a minute that either the Unix ads or the extreme business ads are going to be effective in promoting the AS/400 or S/390.

"I doubt it's going to make a difference," he said. "They're still not advertising the 400. Once again, it's a perception problem. Until IBM can deal with the perception that the AS/400 is an old and tired box, it won't do any good. They're promoting it as a powerful tool for e-commerce. But, who are the people at all these dot coms? They're young people who've never even heard of the AS/400."

At least these new ads highlight the commonality of IBM's line of servers, said Mason. "The old approach was ineffective," he said. "It was like 'buy me because I'm an AS/400.' It never explained what it could do. It's not the same old message anymore."

Croy said that the only hope IBM has to get new users interested in the AS/400 is to advertise all servers under one umbrella. He said he thinks IBM will consolidate its entire server line and give it one name, such as NetFinity, which has broad name recognition and is considered one of IBM's hottest lines of servers.

IBM could not be reached for comment.

Mason said that IBM's new advertising approach is proof that IBM is moving in a new direction, one that has yet to be proven. "Typically, companies, and in particular, their ad agencies, will fire at traditional targets because they know what they're going to hit. But, IBM is starting to fire at some untraditional targets, just to see what it can bring down."

Have you seen IBM's ads for their Unix servers? Are the ads targeted at the right audience? Let us know. E-mail your comments to Assistant News Editor, Edward Hurley at

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