IBM used to be easy to understand. It was International Business Machines, the company that invented tangible things—mainframes, PCs, hard drives—and then sold them. IBM still sells some physical stuff but much less than it used to. The PCs and hard drives were offloaded years ago, and now servers and chips are in the offload queue.
Today’s IBM is much more of a software, services, and consulting company that works on some pretty nebulous stuff. The truth is that the average person has no idea what IBM does or stands for these days, which is just one of its problems. (Bloomberg Businessweek helpfully detailed several of the other problems in a recent cover story.)
The marketing department at IBM has to work pretty hard to try to give the company a clear identity, and the results can be quite comical. A recent TV ad airing during coverage of Wimbledon concerns IBM’s work for a chocolate maker. Thomas Linemayr, the chief executive of Lindt & Sprüngli’s U.S. operations, explains during the commercial that some people like dark chocolate while others prefer milk and white chocolate. “Before, we couldn’t really allow the consumer to customize their chocolate,” he says. “We needed the scalable cloud solution allowing them to select what they’re looking for. Now, there is endless opportunity to indulge.”
Let’s just pause here for a moment and recognize two things: 1) Selling chocolate does not come off as a grand challenge in need of specialized computing systems because 2) we’re talking about chocolate. No one has ever stopped buying a piece of chocolate because of their inability to customize it on a cloud. They’ve bought the chocolate and eaten it.
But suspend disbelief for a moment and assume there is a real problem to be solved here. While IBM’s ad doesn’t actually tell you what it did for Lindt & Sprüngli, there are some more marketing materials available online that go into the partnership. The materials say that Lindt & Sprüngli had a website since 2002 where it sold chocolate but it wanted a better website. It turned to a company called CrossView to build the new retail site, and CrossView used IBM’s software along the way. The end result? A website heralded in the marketing document as “a premium storefront where customers can experience the Lindt brand—like browsing in a department store featuring all things chocolate. This includes a portfolio of up to 600 SKUs—virtually every size, shape and type of chocolate imaginable, including a wide assortment of the brand’s iconic Lindor truffle.”
In English, this means that IBM played a role in making a website that sells 600 products. The website certainly does not sell “virtually every size, shape, and type of chocolate imaginable,” unless you have the imagination of a gnat. It does not even sell all that much stuff as far as retail websites go. And the customization piece that required a scalable cloud solution? Well, there is a spot on the Lindt & Sprüngli store where you can pick three or four different kinds of truffles to put in a bag. Basically, Lindt & Sprüngli now has the dropdown menus of a 1998 website.
When it wasn’t running the chocolate cloud ads at Wimbledon, IBM was touting its tennis analytics capabilities. A flood of stories appeared after Andy Murray lost in the quarterfinals that celebrated the depth of IBM’s post-match statistics. Reuters wrote:
“Andy Murray’s defeat at Wimbledon on Wednesday should have come as no surprise, according to a new IBM system that claims the Briton was a less aggressive player than opponent Grigor Dimitrov. Computer giant IBM credited Dimitrov with 50 aggressive forehands to 44 for Murray during Wednesday’s men’s quarter-final match, in which Bulgarian Dimitrov knocked out last year’s men’s champion in straight sets. … This year’s Wimbledon marks the first time IBM has used the system.”
In this case, “the system” requires more human intervention than you might at first think. IBM had 48 people watching the tennis matches and recording their opinions on whether or not a shot was aggressive. In addition, IBM supplied Wimbledon with “a referee schedule system, details of who is playing for outdoor screens, and a press interview schedule.” Heady stuff.