The Importance of Branding

By Robert Fort, CIO, Virgin Entertainment Group

Concentrate on the Perceptions of IT, and You Just Might Change Reality

Earlier this year in New York, I participated with some of Virgin Entertainment partners in conversations about branding. As the subject focused on how customer perceptions can determine a brand value, it got me thinking about our IT departments and how they are perceived.

Consider your IT department as a brand itself. What is its brand impression? When I say oca-Cola,what impressions come immediately to mind? Cold? Refreshment? Fun? If you asked your company employees their impressions of the IT department, what would they say? The answer is your brand impression.

There a major gap between the perception that chief information officers (CIOs) have of IT departments and the perception that the rest of their company has. It frustrates me that IT is often thought of as a bunch of tech heads more competent at playing video games than at being knowledgeable and committed business enablers and partners.

It can be hard to change people viewpoints. Your predecessors may have forged your IT department reputation, and that reputation may be disconnected from current reality. But there are ways to change that and to create more loyalty on the part of your customers.

Let start with perception. Employees come in every morning, turn on their computers, and submit themselves to the access policies wee put in place. Without a second thought they expect everything to work. As a result, they perceive IT as a utility. I don know of any utility whose logo people would be excited to have on their T-shirts.

It no different among high-level executives. CEOs perceive IT as a cost, even though we have the potential to be a profit center. My advice: start learning that you have to put the business statement before the technology statement. Become an integral part of the business, not a technological outsider. Have an impact on sales as much as, if not more than, you do on cost.

Here at Virgin, for example, our CEO wanted to deploy digital listening stations and asked us to review the solution installed in our stores in England. I realized it was a defining moment for me to show that IT can help sales, rather than just be a utility.

In the United Kingdom, customers can walk up to the kiosk, request a CD, and listen as the tracks play. There no visual feedback; it almost like a Sony Discman. I suspected that something more interactive would not only be more appropriate to the U.S. market, but would also engage the customer for a longer time. We built a kiosk with a touch screen that allows users to see the track list, randomly jump through songs, see the album cover, and get contextual information about the artist and other works. It a platform that even allows us to sell advertising spaceore revenue is always a plus.

The kiosks were originally designed to give users a simple way to listen to music, but theye now something that takes advantage of the time we have captured the customer attention. It not possible to directly calculate the impact on sales, but we do know that peak utilization has risen from a 30 percent average to as high as 70 percent some weeks. It a given that more listens translate to more sales.

Overall, I say that along with other projects, I slowly changing the perception of IT within Virgin Entertainment Group. I say that 90 percent of the people still expect us to be in the backroom keeping the systems running. But there that 10 percent who now perceive that we make a difference, and they acknowledge that technology is part of what differentiates us from our competitors. That becoming our brand.

The moral of this story is that there are two sides to IT. We are a utility and have to keep the machines up and running. But we also do work that pushes the company forward. There are brief moments when we excite people, just after we give them something like interactive kiosks or new software that makes them and the company more productive.

Want to change the perception of IT? Start thinking about both these facets of your work. Remind your users that they spend 100 percent of their time thinking only about the department theye inhether it be operations or finance or whatever. But IT spends 50 percent of its time thinking about IT and 50 percent of its time thinking about operations and finance and every other department in the company.

This may not change their minds, and sometimes you just have to accept that and keep working. After all, Coca-Cola has been refining its brand since 1886.

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