Global CIO: How IT Builds Brands

Technology is among three key factors driving brand value
Of course I wonder when I interview people if they're telling me--and therefore you--what we want to hear. So it is when one of New York's top brand consultants says this about technology's role in building brands: "The CIO is as important a change agent as the CMO."

That's Andy Bateman, CEO of Interbrand New York. Interbrand's the company that for 10 years has ranked the world's most valuable brands. I figured he'd feather back that notion as we talked, qualifying it to the point that well, yes, when you put it that way, then the CIO is I guess sort of one of the many people on a committee who help draft recommendations for how to build a company's brand.

Instead, Bateman blasted away with three observations on what drives brand value: trust, technology, and long-termism. Take that in for a moment. Bateman puts technology right up there alongside customer trust and long-term brand investment--surely the motherhood and apple pie of branding. Here's how he backed that up.

Technology's so important, Bateman reckons, in part because it's how companies build trust today. Trust in companies has been eroded, whether in busted banks or bankrupt automakers. Says Bateman:

"How do you build trust back? One of the ways is to be transparent, explain what's going on and expose using technology more levels of your organization, as well as customer data. Now is the time when brands could be using new technologies to engage in conversations and almost reinvent themselves."

As this suggests, much of Bateman's vision for brand-building technology centers on social media, using Web sites, company blogs, and platforms such as Facebook to refine a brand. He notes that Coke has more than 3 million followers on Facebook, from an effort started by two people not employed by Coca-Cola. Given its importance, CIOs need their IT teams to help lead the companies' Web 2.0 efforts, to be hyper aware of what's coming next, as well as what the risks are. IT teams can build the platforms, can find secure ways to use them, but they can also be experts on what to expect when companies embrace real, public customer conversations:

"When you invite customers in, they really want to be right inside. They want to know not just what you make, but what you're working on. They want to know not just what you do for a living, but what your purpose is. They want to be able to interact with people at every level of the organization."

Yet brand building technology isn't all social media. Bateman points to the tech-enabled branding of NikeID, which lets customers customize Nike shoes by fit, colors, materials, and name. This is a company's who's whole identity was built designing and marketing shoes, yet it's ceding control to customers to craft their own, online and in stores.

Bateman lives in the real world. He knows the CIO doesn't, and shouldn't, own the brand. But like NikeID, he's seeing smart companies bringing marketing, HR, and IT disciplines together to make new brand experiences possible:

"If you really want true differentiation, it's going to come from your people, and what they can leverage technology to bring new customer insights, new customer relevance, and therefore new, better products and services."

So, I don't think Bateman's blowing me--and therefore you--smoke to make us feel good about technology being the center of the world. In fact, inside many companies, he's saying something people DON'T want to hear.

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We haven't surveyed IT leaders directly about their brand building responsibilities. But when we asked InformationWeek 500 companies about top plans to innovate with technology this year, what I'd consider brand building activities ranked far down the list. High were making business processes efficient (60%) and lowering costs (47%). Low were introducing IT-led products (37%), engaging customers in new ways (20%), and creating new business models/revenue streams (14%).

Bateman sees the challenge ahead this way:

"If we think we're going back to a shrink wrapped version of the markets we served before, we're sadly mistaken. This recession has fundamentally changed the basis on which categories operate and brands have been built. And it's exposed those who are weak. ... Now is the best time to leverage technology, to leverage superior information about your customers, and really reshape and reset and redefine your brand. ... You have to innovate your way out of this, you can't just wait for your brand to come back. That's why the CTOs and CIOs have a role and an opportunity like never before."

For some CIOs and CTOs, and their CEOs, Bateman is in fact telling them exactly what they want to hear. For some, he's telling them what they fear. Fixing this battered brand is part of their jobs.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO.

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