The Inscrutable Mad Men of Silicon Valley

Esoteric hardware companies try to dominate airport ad space

Donald Basile is the chief executive officer of Violin Memory, a startup in Silicon Valley that makes superfast data storage systems. You’ve probably never heard of the company, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen its ads. Over the past year, Violin has blanketed major U.S. airports with vibrant billboards and posters. They say nothing about what Violin sells and tuck the company name down in a corner. Instead, they’re dominated by psychedelic imagery: a glowing piece of kryptonite, an LSD-inspired version of hyperspace, and one that’s basically just colored ribbons around a naked woman. “Our demographic is people in their late 30s to early 50s,” Basile says. “They grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, and comic books. They respond to three basic things: power, visions of the future, and sex.”

Basile represents one flank in a war for the attention of Joe Travelers, particularly Joe Travelers with purchasing authority for esoteric data center hardware. Starting in February, Violin has marched into area airports in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, Salt Lake City, and Austin, Tex., displacing some of the far more sedate ads from Barracuda Networks, one of the biggest fish in airport tech advertising. Barracuda sells security, spam filtering, and storage systems. Executives from both companies admit that the vast majority of people cruising by the ads care little about data centers. But the companies are out to prove that geeks can innovate in advertising, and that even little guys can use marketing to punch above their weight.

Founded in 2005, Violin makes a type of turbocharged storage system that relies on flash memory instead of mechanical disk drives and can quickly crunch through massive volumes of data. The company will sell $100 million of systems this year and plans to file for an initial public offering by yearend, Basile says. Violin competes with storage industry heavyweights such as EMC and Hewlett-Packard, but Basile is particularly focused on Oracle, which makes its own supercharged data system. The kryptonite ad was built with Lawrence J. Ellison, Oracle’s founder and CEO, in mind. “We wanted Larry to know about his kryptonite,” Basile says. “We can’t get on his private jet, but we can surround him and his employees.”

For the most part, though, Violin’s ads are meant to influence people who purchase hardware at large corporations. “There are usually about five people at a company that make all the important decisions,” Basile says. “We want to make sure there is an impression with those people over and over and over again.” Although Violin hired outsiders to design and shoot the ads, Basile says he conceptualized them himself.

If Violin is the plucky newcomer to the airport ad scene, then Barracuda is the old pro. The company, founded in 2003, has been blanketing U.S. airports since 2005 and is currently in 75 of them. Many of the ads, which are designed in-house, depict its black-and-blue systems along with a straightforward pitch about how the bland hunk of metal will help stop viruses, spam, or data loss. Michael Perone, chief marketing officer and co-founder of Barracuda, says the ads are meant to appeal to the common man as much as executives. “You might get too much spam and then go to your IT guy and say, ‘I know the guys at Barracuda can fix that,’ ” he says.

Perone has taken notice of Violin creeping onto his turf. “I’ve seen the ads, but I don’t really know what they do,” he says. Barracuda has “a 10- to 20-year commitment” to airport advertising, he says, but is occasionally outbid. Violin paid about $1 million for its 9- to 12-month run. “If you’re just there for a short while, people don’t remember who you are,” Perone says. “They remember if you are there for years.” Both Barracuda and Violin say they have metrics showing an increase in traffic to their websites due to their airport ads.

Peter Sealey, a former chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola, gives Barracuda’s campaign slightly higher marks than Violin’s, saying Barracuda provides some meaningful information about its products. “When I do garner attention, I want to convey what I do,” he says. He likens the spectacle of the Violin ads to “ego campaigns” that actors in Hollywood sometimes demand of studios. “This is so the CEO and Violin employees can see their ads.”

Basile, originally an electrical engineer, dismisses the idea that his ads leave too much to the imagination. He brags that the kryptonite ad uses an actual prop from Smallville, a TV show about a young Superman. “You can’t ignore it,” he says. As for celebrating such iconography instead of Violin’s name and products? “We thought, ‘The name? Who cares?’ ” Basile says. “We want people to see the imagery.”


    The bottom line: Violin and Barracuda, midsize hardware makers, say airport marketing will help them compete against major enterprise companies.

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