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No longer the "Dot in dotcom"...

Sun Grapples to Find a Credible New Positioning Statement

November 7, 2002 article by Zsolt Kerekes
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Zsolt Kerekes - Publisher
Zsolt Kerekes is editor and publisher
of the SPARC Product Directory and

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Since the eclipse of the Sun last year, analysts and the stock market have discovered that they can now look at Sun Microsystems without being dazzled by its marketing hype. When you've got a company whose outlook has changed from being an $18 Billion revenue with double digit growth, sliding towards a $10 Billion company with the prospect of double digit shrinkage, and a share price which has fared worse than many of its main competitors people are bound to ask questions. Increasingly they're getting less impressed by the lack of vision coming out from the company.

In an effort to meet some of that criticism, Sun's CEO - Scott McNealy - appears to be testing out a new positioning statement, when he was quoted in several articles in the Mercury News as saying "...we dominate 64-bit computing".

Sun uses positioning statements in its ads and in its press releases. Positioning statements are important because they give you a simple mental picture of how the company wants to be perceived by potential customers, partners and stakeholders. Although positioning statements are always intended by their authors to be positive, they can, sometimes be negative. That happens when the reader doesn't believe the statement, which then casts doubt on the brand behind the claim.

So, for example:- for many years Tatung claimed to be "the leading SPARC compatible manufacturer". I argued with them in vain that the claim was ridiculous, because Sun Microsystems is in fact the the leading SPARC compatible manufacturer by a huge margin. It was interesting that Sun never contested Tatung's widely advertised claims in the heyday of the workstation market. Sun didn't need to. That positioning claim from Tatung cast a doubt on everything that the company said, and Tatung has nearly disappeared from view as an active supplier in the market.

To compound Tatung's problems, they also came up with the statement "The Intelligent Choice in SPARC COMPuting Solutions". I'm sure that sounds good if you're selling Tatung. But if you were an existing Sun user, and looking at Tatung as an alternative choice, this statement suggested that Sun was not the intelligent choice, and by inference you were not an intelligent buyer. Well, no-one wants to buy stuff from a company that insults them. So that wasn't such a good idea either.

Getting back to Sun.

The classic example of a tarnished positioning statement was Sun's "We're the dot in dotcom" - which worked fine during the dotcom boom but which backfired when it became associated with the failures of the dot-crash.

Since the crash, Sun has been using wording in its news stories about market share along the lines that "Sun is the #1 Unix server company". However, this year independent data showed that HP had in fact overtaken Sun as the #1 Unix server company in Europe, so that became a dodgy claim which Sun could no longer use with impunity. I wondered if Sun would change that to "#1 Unix RISC server company" - but that's starting to look a little bit contrived. So in the short term - it's likely you're going to see a lot more of the "64 bit computing leader" phrase emerging in Sun ads and press releases.

Now this question may sound silly - but why can't Sun just say it's the leading SPARC compatible server company?
  1. that claim, while true, was hijacked by Tatung and it's too late for Sun to erase that positioning from all our brains.
  2. Sun underinvested in promoting the "SPARC" brand, in an effort to kill off all its workstation rivals in the late 1990's. Choosing instead to invest in promoting the Sun brand, SPARC became orphaned and is little known in the wider computer market.
It's unfortunate that, for technical reasons, many 32 bit computers clock about twice as fast as 64 bit processors. Also the fastest 32 bit servers from HP, IBM, Unisys etc run many applications much faster than Sun's 64 bit servers. That means that being the leader in 64 bit computing will not be perceived with the same rosy glow that McNealy might wish. Changing the reality might work better than just changing the words. ...Sun Microsystems profile, ...Tatung profile, SPARC manufacturers

I've just finished reading "Managing Brand Equity", a book by David A. Aaker. Although published in 1991 and pre internet marketing, it's an excellent read and the ideas in it are just as relevant today as when they were first written. It's being offered by Amazon at a discount if you buy a bunch of other branding related books which is how I got to see it.

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