Tech Brands and Also-Rans

Among California-based, high-tech companies, the strongest brand belongs to-may I have the envelope, please-Hewlett-Packard

Among California-based, high-tech companies, the strongest brand belongs to—may I have the envelope, please—Hewlett-Packard.

According to Connecticut-based Corporate Branding, HP is outranked only by Honda, Toyota and (in first place) Disney. The rankings reflect familiarity and favorability ratings by vice presidents and more-senior executives in the top 20 percent of U.S. corporations.

Intel is No. 7, Gateway No. 9, Apple No. 13, Cisco No. 17 and Netscape a distant No. 20 out of the 75 companies scored. Why does the HP brand carry more cachet than these highfliers?

I suspect that HPs brand strength comes in no small part from users gratitude. How many of us present our work to bosses, peers and clients with the help of an HP printer? Bits are bits, and PCs are clones, but printing is one of the last office technologies thats obviously hard to do well. Putting ink on paper quickly, reliably and inexpensively makes the difference between being ready for a crucial meeting and being late with an ugly work product that requires an apologetic prologue.

Your Intel chip has an AMD equivalent, your Gateway computer has any number of substitutes, your Cisco router and Netscape browser are standards-based products that are meant to do precisely the same things as their competitors products. But on any floor of any office building, Ill bet you can find people who have a favorite printer. Thats a brand.

Apple has an important opportunity to strengthen its brand among business IT buyers in the coming year. Ive seen the intrusive feature overload of Windows XP inspiring a fresh look at the Macintosh.

And brands are more than a triumph of image over substance. In a sluggish market, IT providers will grow only by taking share from competitors; the only way to do that without suicidal price cuts is by differentiating a brand. Paradoxically, that differentiation demands innovation—and market-driven innovation might actually get this business growing again.