|By Roger Strukhoff||
|September 21, 2004 12:00 AM EDT||
Sun Microsystems famously grew from start-up mode to $1 billion in annual sales without spending one cent on advertising its products.
It established early on a reputation for good performance, good pricing, and the latest in a software environment that appealed to technically oriented users who were writing software, designing bridges, and taking over Wall Street with what was then a new category of "technical workstations."
The tall, sage figure of company co-founder and software genius Bill Joy was ubiquitous at relevant trade shows during the early days, giving a human face to this upstart company that eventually drove numerous larger firms out of this part of the business. Co-genius and hardware guru Andy Bechtolsheim was seen less often, but inspired equally with his soft-spoken mastery of the nuts and bolts.
Sun leveraged this success into larger systems that served networks of workstations, in increasingly sophisticated and complex applications. It spread its influence into all the major vertical markets, whether government, manufacturing, telecommunications, or retail. It became a legitimate competitor to industry behemoths IBM and Hewlett Packard.
Sun finally became large enough to force its fiscally conservative CEO Scott McNealy to start advertising. So it did. Some of its campaigns were direct and successful, others less so. Its initial efforts were in a pre-Web age, so it concentrated on focused, print advertising campaigns. It avoided expensive, diffuse TV advertising.
The one day, sometime during the 90s, Sun seemingly discovered television and Microsoft all at once. McNealy started railing against "the evil empire from Redmond." While railing against the "mainframe hairballs" presumably developed by its traditional competitors, he saved his most vitriolic and personal attacks for Microsoft and its chairman Bill Gates, once even noting that he was "sure that my child is better looking than his."
A stated libertarian, he most likely was terrifically offended by what he perceived as Microsoft's monopolistic market manipulation. Microsoft broke a compact, in McNealy's view it seems, by flouting the anti-trust codes of a federal government that he felt shouldn't be empowered to intervene among fair-minded competitors. But with McNealy seemingly believing that Microsoft was acting less than fair-minded, he became a proponent of federal action to mitigate what Bill and company were doing.
But McNealy's Microsoft-bashing didn't end there. He also seemed to believe that Sun's systems were legitimate competitors in the consumer marketplace to personal computers running Microsoft Windows. Sun was superior to Microsoft in every way, ran this view. No one should ever run a system based on Windows. To this day, Sun employees are strongly encouraged to avoid all Microsoft products and forbidden to run some of them, according to a recent report in the
San Francisco Chronicle .
What does all this have to do with Sun today? Nothing and everything. On the one hand, it is merely a digression about one CEO's seeming obsession with another CEO. On the other, it strikes to the heart of the matter of why I get so confused by a lot of Sun’s technology advertising and marketing.
McNealy's Microsoft obsession badly skewed the message his company should have been sending to its customers and prospects. This is not the only instance of this phenomenon. When Sun ran its first TV ad in the 90s, it featured an arrow flying through space in a circuitous route toward a target, finding the bull's-eye at the end of the commercial. "All the wood behind one arrow" was its theme.
Sun employees and vendors knew what this meant, but did anyone else? We knew that Scott was fond of using this analogy to describe how Sun would focus all of its efforts on a single, integrated hardware and software platform that was allegedly more powerful and effective than anything on the market. Don't get distracted with multiple systems approaches (as IBM and HP had in those days), but keep all the wood behind one arrow.
I am sure that at least 99.9 percent of the viewing audience had no idea of why this analogy was used and what it was supposed to mean. Good thing, by the way, because the arrow wasn’t very big or powerful, implying that its originator wasn’t, either. But the good news was that Sun either lacked the funds or the gall to run its opaque message more than once. The ad disappeared with very little trace.
Fast forwarding to the late 90s, one once again saw Sun's message on television, although this time the ads were hard to miss. The company had by now morphed up more than a magnitude to $10 billion in annual revenue and rising. It had ridden the dot-com boom by providing a large share of the servers that supported high-traffic websites and by benefiting from a ballooning stock price through media hype of its Java programming language.
Java, for which my marketing company had written a white paper concerning outlining its original, modest intent as a set-top box operating environment, was suddenly the universal solvent for all technology challenges and opportunities. Java had a simple, appealing name (in contrast to typically arcane-sounding programming languages such as C++ or Modula-3), which led to simplistically appealing coverage of its wonders as the driver of the dot-com age.
Mid-level marketing managers associated with it became overnight media superstars and Java was said to be the magic brew fueling the Worldwide Web.
All of this resulted in Sun deciding to position itself as "the dot in dot-com." Any Marketing 101 professor will tell you neither to position yourself to narrowly if you don't have to nor to attach yourself to something so new and exciting that its tenability could be suspect. Undaunted, Sun decided that it had latched onto the perfect message, that by "attaching our grappling hook to the dot-com rocket," in McNealy's phrase, it could now tout its success to the masses.
One little problem I had with this campaign was that it seemed to kill its customers: the TV campaign featured a bunch of what appeared to be a nice enough, properly diverse group of youngish execs sitting around a standard-issue boardroom table, only to suffer apparently lethal electrical shock as Sun's omnipotent "dot" invaded their space and blew them away.
This again resulted in a message that was a.) unclear in defining the company's benefits, b.) vacuously incautious about the underlying message it was communicating.
When dot-com became dot-bomb, Sun was shown to have no aplomb. Revenues started to disappear as its narrowly cast message proved worthless to technology buyers looking for value and flexibility rather than glibness and hubris. McNealy's continued rants against Redmond, breezy assurances that Java is the answer for everything, and insistence on non-starters such as StarOffice should blow Microsoft Office out of the water did nothing but turn Wall Street, analysts, and customers off.
I'm the same age as Scott, and trust me, I don't use the same lines in any conversation that I used in my 20s. They haven't worked for years!
Many years ago I had the experience of being involved in negotiations with Ed Zander, the former Sun COO and man often given credit for managing Sun's rapid growth with assurance. The negotiations with Zander, now CEO of Motorola, were unpleasant, brisk, and productive. This man was probably no fun at a beer bust, but he was very clear about what Sun would agree to, and how fast the clock was ticking.
It's my opinion that Zander's leaving was the clearest sign that the glory days are gone forever. His management style was well-known to be brusque, and the results the company achieved under his leadership were extraordinary. You didn't hear visionary gibberish or frat-boy insults from Zander.
I have not had the pleasure of interacting with Sun's new COO Jonathan Schwartz. But it seems he's coming from the visionary side of things, and what Sun needs more than anything right now is an operations savant, because there are numerous reasons not to give up on Sun:
- There are ridiculous numbers of good uses for Java, and there's no reason for me to detail any of them, as you can find all you need to know in JDJ's regular features and columns.
- I've been working with a group of people on developing e-government initiatives, and we like Solaris, because it's Unix - it has been able to let more than one person at a time do more than one thing at a time since dirt was young.
- On the hardware side, I still think that when you have a transaction-intensive, real-time application that Sun's iron still sets the price/performance benchmark. (We're staying away from the Dell/Linux combo for now, because we don't want to deploy legions of fungible boxes, we want to deploy a few high-value boards, and we don't like the dark side of Moore's Law, which says all your Wintel/Lintel iron is obsolete in three years. And we're starting to worry about heat, too.)
- Sun employs large numbers of highly intelligent vertical market specialists who understand the specific needs, on a global basis, of their customers.
Yet these great technologies and great people are continually hamstrung by a CEO who believes StarOffice will overtake Microsoft Office and by squadrons of marketing communications managers whose simple goal is to "stay on message," no matter how irrelevant, tangential, or condescending the bullet points in that message are. If you are someone who never gets tired of hearing "proven," "best-of-breed," "cost-effective," or "taking the surprise out of business solutions," then contact Sun and demand as much of their current marketing material as they can muster.
A House of Mirrors
A good example of Sun's current marketing-think is provided by a survey I recently received from Sun that asked me to associate a bunch of canned euphemisms with a particular company. Since this survey wasn't blind, i.e., I was told that it was sent to me by Sun, the punches in this thing were telegraphed a la George Foreman in 1974. The survey even had the gall to ask whether I (and other survey takers) had heard of the phrase, "the network is the computer," and if so, what company that was associated with.
I guess if most people answer those questions correctly then the survey will prove that Sun has been "right" all along, and that there's nothing wrong with the company's performance. "Oh, that's right, the network is the computer and Sun invented that phrase. Say no more, I'll buy your proven solutions with best-of-breed technologies to take the surprise out of my business solutions and maintain competitive advantage in a cost-effective manner!"
This survey seemed to be an effort to deliver a pre-conceived package of customer input that would simply reinforce obtuse prejudices held by top management. It did nothing to ascertain how its customers actually feel about Sun and its standing among its competitors.
Detroit failed in the 70s because the execs looked out their windows and saw nothing but American cars. The threat from Japanese companies was not part of their world, so they missed it. Sun is going to fail in this decade if it does nothing but send out surveys to customers asking them to validate marketing phrases of Sun's creation.
If Sun management will not seek the underlying causes of why IT buyers would buy stuff from other companies, it will miss the threat from other companies. It's one thing to obsess about competitors; it's quite another to find out why they are causing you trouble and then honestly figuring out how to do something about it.
So readers of JDJ can continue to debate the arcane technical merits of Java specifically and Sun technology in general, as they should. But if they're smart, they'll be careful about staking too much of their own careers on a company that has lost its way and shows few signs of being the market leader it was for many years. Brashness and bravado are cool if the company knows how to love its customers and fight its competition. Otherwise, that and two bucks will get you a cup of old-fashioned java at the corner Starbucks.
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