So here’s why some of the Lotus products are losing their branding

Loyal readers of this blog will know I respect the analyst James Governor of Redmonk – I’ve quoted James a number of times as well as hosting him on This Week in Lotus 41.  James is a champion of the application developer (the ‘new Kingmakers’) and has a close relationship with IBM.

In a recent post, he discusses his takeaways from IBM’s IMPACT conference (the Information Management version of Lotusphere), getting to the question of IBM Software re-branding:

Finally- something that struck me clearly at Impact when thinking about its expanding portfolio is that IBM now blue washing it’s own products. Bluewashing is the term that IBM uses to describe the process whereby it absorbs an acquisition, getting its products ready to market as an IBM product.

Mike Rhodin, Senior Vice President, IBM Software Solutions Group, explained to me over cocktails that the rules were pretty simple. If a product contains elements from more than one IBM brand then it’s a “solution” and as such will be branded as an IBM, rather than a “legacy brand” product.

So now we’re seeing IBM corporate bluewashing of products previously branded as Websphere, Lotus or DB2. This repackaging makes sense, but also may orphan some practioners.

We are, of course, seeing this already with products like Forms, WCM and now Connections losing their ‘Lotus’ brand.  We’re also seeing a focus on solutions branding such as ‘Social Business’, ‘Exceptional Web Experience’ and ‘Exceptional Work Experience’ for campaigns and marketing.

So, what do Mike Rhodin’s comments add to the mix?  That products containing elements from more than one brand will use the IBM brand only…

It kinda makes sense – to play on the strength of the IBM Software Group portfolio as a whole, to remove the sometimes-artificial barriers between the brands, to make it easier for customers and partners to focus on solutions rather than products and so on.

However, there are some real issues too.  Not least that practically every single product that is part of the Lotus portfolio contains multiple brands under the covers, e.g.:

  • Lotus Sametime – meeting services based on WAS
  • Lotus Quickr – half the product based on Portal/WAS
  • Lotus Domino – contains rights to use Tivoli Directory Integrator

and so on.  So actually, very few products should retain their original branding, if this rule is accurate.

More problematically, the entire IBM Salesforce, Partner/Distribution organisation and Education/Certification regimes are still set up to focus on the old brands.  I am sure that IBM is working on this, but until a significant portion of this backend infrastructure is transitioned, it is hard to see the renamed products being properly treated as generic IBM Solutions.  Also, as James points out in a small comment that covers a significant impact, ‘This repackaging makes sense, but also may orphan some practioners.‘  In other words, a lot of those individuals and organisations that identify themselves with the ‘legacy’ brands (including Lotus, but also Tivoli etc) could be alienated or left behind by the brand changes.

For me, the biggest issue is that as far as I see, organisations still buy products from people.  Solutions are what gets conversations started and business budgets committed (such as wanting the business to use social to drive customer experience, or improving a web presence to be more ‘exceptional’), but once the solution has been framed, products are used to build it and they are procured from people that the organisation trust.

Just as I know of no IT Manager that has yet googled ‘exceptional web experience’ or even ‘social business’ when they have been looking for a new collaboration solution, I don’t see these product renames as being significant, unless IBM finds a way to improve the awareness and reach of IBM Software and the renamed products into the marketplace.  To me that means building the IBM Software brand – if we are losing these long-time and powerful (sometimes in the wrong sense I know) brands such as Lotus and Tivoli, we need IBM Software to take their place.  Simply IBM is not enough – many organisations I speak to have no perception of IBM as a software company.  Software just gets lost amongst the mass of servers, hardware and services.  Ask normal folks what Google and Microsoft (or Jive and Socialtext) do and you’ll get a answer – IBM doesn’t have that straightforward proposition right now.  A standalone IBM Software branding would help that.

The ‘people’ element is interesting too.  IBM has a long-time reputation being almost addicted to shifting personnel around the organisation (IBM = I’ve Been Moved). Customers and partners have always struggled to keep tabs on who in the 400,000 employee organisation they should be dealing with.   In some ways the smaller legacy software brands helped to reduce the impact of this – IBMers tended to have a loyalty to their brand and hence stick around for longer than they might have done otherwise.  Also the branding on roles and responsibilities meant that it was easier to find the right person to build and maintain relationships with.  I have a major concern that once all the smaller brands have gone that we will all be dealing with IBM SWG as a whole – that is a big organisation even in smaller countries such as the UK.  If personnel continue to be moved at the normal pace, that can only have a negative impact on those relationships that are so important to the success of the products.

So in summary, IBM needs to brand and ADVERTISE the IBM Software products.  It also needs to create an internal organisation structure than makes dealing with IBM Software as easy as a customer could deal with a standalone software vendor.

Can I see IBM doing this?  Not so sure right now.  It seems that the old brands are being dropped for a vague feeling that it is the right thing to do, rather than with the decisive and focused plan to launch something better.  I hope I am proved wrong in the long term…  

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!