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Tech PR Veteran on Branding

Ed Niehaus and I sat down exploring the current state of B2B tech marketing.  Ed is an industry veteran who headed one of the top technology PR firms from the early 90s through the Internet boom – Niehaus Ryan Wong.  NRW launched Yahoo, Verisign, Apple’s iMac, Veritas, and 3 Pixar movies.  The agency was one of the unfortunate casualties of the dot-bust, but luckily its founder lives on as a VC and board member.

It’s no secret that public relations is often the first program in the marketing mix that technology startups choose to outsource.  PR can be among the earliest third parties to influence how a new company positions itself in the marketplace.  PR becomes the offensive line of content marketing to get a vendor noticed and talked about.  Some may argue that social media has supplanted the importance of traditional PR block & tackle, but I don’t buy it. PR firms and practitioners still enjoy an undue share of influence over how and which new technologies and personalities move our industry.

My former employer The Horn Group was in friendly competition with NRW, so I’ve had nothing but respect for Ed.  He is one of the best at his craft.  He recognized early on that the firm’s strong reputation engendered a unique opportunity to offer new clients a value-added service on Branding, hence trumping the leading advertising/interactive agencies at the time.  Ed believes brand is definitely a CEO-level discussion, one of the most strategic decisions, and so he wanted PR to have a seat at the table.  Now Ed is no fan of advertising – not even the inexpensive kind – and it’s fair criticism to say NRW’s service neglected the aesthetic design element in branding (it had no visual deliverables).  Still, Ed was out in front in recognizing the powerful role of PR in building tech brands.

Reflecting both enterprise and consumer tech experience, Ed recommends talking about brand with management of B2B companies in terms of the the vendor’s reputation.  This approach would help the discipline mature and hold it to the same litmus test as all marketing spend these days.  Namely, does the activity drive either awareness or sales?  Buzz or share?

According to Ed, brand comprises not just the positioning of the venture (i.e. product solving target customer pain better than competition), but its values and vision as well.  Brand is not the identity package itself, but elements reflect the entire “affective domain” of the company – its deeper sensory appeal to the buyer.  This is also impacted by buzz in the market, which is created by (surprise!) PR.

Finally, Ed had a parting piece of advice for most startups: stop expending 90% of your communications effort solving internal struggles, and only 10% talking to the outside world!  Could the solution he’s implying be “hire a good PR firm”, I wonder?

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