HP's Wow Factor

Hewlett-Packard is unveiling a bold, provocative marketing campaign. But can it back up the new message with equally spiffy products?

All the buzz in tech advertising circles in recent days has focused on Apple Computer's (AAPL) new "I'm a Mac" TV spots that began airing May 1. The ads feature a casually hip actor personifying the Mac who talks up his advantages over a lovably nerdy loser who represents the Windows PC. But probably no one has been as focused on the commercials as Apple's former marketing chief Satjiv Chahil and advertising honcho David Roman.

That's because the pair, now at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), have for much of the past year been working on a marketing campaign for their new employer that's set to launch on May 9. And where Apple's ads are an attempt to lure Windows PC users to Macs, HP's campaign is far more ambitious -- and breaks with the me-too marketing approaches of HP's past.


  Chahil and his new team "want to make some noise, and sell hard," says Rich Silverstein, co-founder of ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which has worked for HP for many years, including on this project. "There's an optimism and dynamism to everything they're doing over there."

For starters, HP's new advertising offensive is broader than anything the company's $27 billion PC operation has tried before. It spans edgy prime-time TV spots, innovative Internet-based ads, and a partnership with MTV that features HP gear in a reality show inspired by members of Chahil's team. The goal: to do away with HP's fragmented marketing strategy of the past and build a cohesive campaign that will work across many product lines, in all regions of the world, using print, online, and broadcast media.

Possibly the most notable distinction of the campaign is its attempt to put the PC into a bigger cultural context. With a tagline of, "The computer is personal again," the idea is to position HP as the company that truly understands how central the PC has become to most people's lives. "We live in a world that is rapidly going digital. Our workplace is going digital, our homes are going digital, and entertainment is going digital. And everything digital is going mobile and wireless. And HP is the only company that has the products and services to cover the entire spectrum."


  Says Roger Kay, president of consultancy Endpoint Technologies, "they're on to something, because nobody else out there is trying to make the whole experience easier for people. I think they'll capture some pretty good buzz."

That will be a big change for HP, whose past advertising efforts epitomize the worst of tech marketing. In the past, the company has run fuzzy, feel-good corporate-branding campaigns with little connection to anything a customer could go out and buy; one recent tagline promoted the rather vague notion that "everything is possible." Then, HP would pour millions of dollars into weekly circulars, with mind-numbingly dense product ads packed with information on speeds and feeds, rebates and other arcana.

What relegated HP among the worst offenders was its famously engineering-oriented culture. "We've been pretty quiet about some of the differentiation we bring to the party," says Todd Bradley, who became head of HP's Personal Systems Group in 2004 after a stint at palmOne (PALM). "We've let our competitors define us as just another PC maker."


  The new campaign will cost "hundreds of millions" of dollars and is expected to run for about two years, Chahil says. HP has purchased the first 60-second spot during the 9 p.m. hour, on all the networks and every major cable channel, to show an introductory ad that will run only once. After that will come ads in which unseen celebrities -- you can only see their "talking hands" gesturing along with the voiceover -- describe everything they do with their PCs. At the end, the celeb's identity is revealed. "We want to showcase what our customers do with our technology," says Chahil.

Until now, HP has shot such spots with reality show pioneer Mark Burnett and Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, also known as the Flying Tomato, who is using his PC to learn guitar and to store goofy videos of himself and his friends while they're on the road. "It dawned on us as we got started that every PC is like a person's autobiography," says Silverstein. HP is also making the underlying production tools available so that any HP business units or even consumers can create their own "talking hands" spot.

The campaign will also introduce a startlingly different type of product ad for HP. All will feature the hand-drawn graphic of a hand. But rather than represent all products equally, HP will now feature only a few select products -- and only their most striking feature. An ad for one consumer notebook will highlight HP's Quickplay technology, which lets users play a movie or song without having to boot up Windows. The tagline: "Don't boot. Play."


  Similarly, the ad for the NX9420 business notebook talks only of its multifunction docking station, which includes a hard drive and special synchronization software. "Every time you dock up, you back up," reads the copy. "HP has always tended to shy away from anything edgy, and it's always been very democratic about talking about everything it does -- and it does just about everything," says Chahil. Instead, he says he wants only ads with a "wow factor."

The company has also invested to create striking online ads. At first glance, they appear to be plain old banner ads -- but in fact, they're full-page ads. For example, the company has bought space on Yahoo!'s (YHOO) entertainment page for one of its notebook PCs. Visitors at first see only a banner ad showing an HP notebook, which after a few seconds appears to slurp up all the content on the page -- and this then becomes visible on the monitor of the notebook under the tagline: "Like you, it craves entertainment."

HP also brought the idea for a new reality TV show to MTV, says MTV President Michael Wolf. The studio has created the first of six shows to run over the next six months. In each episode of Meet or Delete, a cast members finds a person -- be it a date, a roommate for a Spring Break road trip, or a guitar player for a band -- by combing through contestants' hard drives. Wolf says the show will be unique, in that it will run on all of MTV's platforms, from its flagship TV shows to its MTV.com Web site. "This is an unprecedented series for us, and an unprecedented campaign," says Wolf. "What better way to learn about someone than through their hard drives?"


  For HP, the campaign could create more momentum for a PC unit that's already on a roll. Analysts cite profit and market-share improvements as the main reason for the 58% rise in HP's stock price since new CEO Mark Hurd took over a year ago. And analyst Kay says the spot may well help HP differentiate itself from Dell (DELL), which has struggled with consumers in recent quarters, given increased price competition from HP and others. "HP has always had a deep technology portfolio that they haven't taken much advantage of," says Kay. "Everyone thinks HP just bangs boxes together like everyone else, but there's things they can do in a way that makes your life easier."

All this said, the new campaign will reap big dividends only if HP can back it up with spiffier products. While the company sold 30 million PCs last year, its portfolio is amazingly free of a "hit" product, with nothing even approaching the buzz of an iMac. "I've covered this industry for years, and I'd be hard-pressed to name an HP model number," Kay says.

HP executives say they understand the need to spice up the products as well as the advertising. They'll begin the process with new portable computers set to be unveiled the same day as the new campaign.


  Also, Bradley has put Chahil in charge of a new design board to make industrial design a higher priority. Rather than have HP's designers be part of engineering, the goal is to make sure the marketers have a bigger impact on the look and feel of HP's products. "Our guys have been working on this for a while," says Bradley. "We're recognizing the importance of design -- that what we put out there has to have a wow factor."

As for Apple, Roman says he's relieved that the company's latest ads focus not on any new capabilities, but only on why the Mac is better than the PC. Rather than zero in on the machine, "We want to get much more humanity into our work," says Roman, who was Apple's advertising chief at the time of its landmark "Think Different" campaign in 1997.

Indeed, the initial TV spot of HP's new blitz was never intended to be shown outside of company walls. The two-minute version showed to HP's troops was a montage of HP history -- showing how the excitement of Apple's early days gave way to the dreary specmanship and price wars of the 1990s. At one point, a shot of a Dell assembly plant is shown as a voice says: "At one point, one company even declared the PC was a commodity -- and no one stood up to say they were wrong." HP gets out of its seat May 9.

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