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November 16, 2021 // Jeremy Horwitz // Opinion  //       //  Opinion

In tech PR, brands – not products – now win journalists' eyeballs

Although I was glad to hang up my reporter's hat to join Allison+Partners, colleagues occasionally ask what it was like to be on the receiving end of technology pitches – especially in my newsrooms, which routinely fielded hundreds if not thousands of emails every day. I always note the volume of incoming "news" was so overwhelming that the only realistic option was triaging. If something was clearly important to either my coverage area or my readers, it became an immediate priority; otherwise, we ignored it.

In an ideal world, "clearly important" would be judged logically or on merit, but reader interest is neither purely logical nor meritorious. These days, a story about Apple's latest cleaning cloth or emojis is guaranteed to draw far more eyeballs than any rival company's biggest substantive news about AI or product breakthroughs. Search Google and you'll find more than 300 million Google results for "Apple cleaning cloth" – including coverage in The New York Times, top tech trades such as The Verge, and YouTube videos. It's all about Apple's brand, not the product, a fact that drives both engineers and marketers crazy. 

Our team recently surveyed more than 1,000 technology company decision-makers – a study that's coming soon (subscribe here) – to go beyond guesswork and anecdotal evidence, obtaining data-driven insights into why this happens. My take: Tech companies are belatedly realizing what consumer brands understood a decade ago, namely that brand, value, and purpose are now at least as important to customers as product developments, speeds, and feeds.

Brand is a thumb on the scale 

Just like food and clothing brands, B2B and B2C tech companies increasingly need authentic, transparent, and socially conscious narratives to connect with customers and potential partners. Trusty old reporter hat on, I knew from experience that tech journalists and consumers focus heavily on trusted brands; our research confirms most tech companies are moving in the same direction or at least trying to do so. 

That said, brand authenticity is a work in progress. Tech company marketers and C-suites don't always align fully with one another on brand narratives, and while most executives now understand the importance of brand as a concept, it's not universally appreciated. Additionally, some international companies are daunted by telling consistent brand stories across all of their local markets, as regional marketing teams might have separate visions. 

Brand awareness makes all the difference in grabbing journalists' attention. When hundreds or thousands of pitches are overloading inboxes, product news from an unknown brand isn't likely to be interesting – assuming it's not vaporware, it's just one more "look at me!" request coming from a growing crowd of companies desperate for attention. But if the subject line uses a known brand to hook the reporter, specific product news may get further attention. In other words, brand resonance has become a necessary, if not sufficient, means to earn media coverage.

Companies increasingly understand brand importance, but can't fully capitalize on it

Our research suggests tech companies increasingly understand brand importance but don't fully agree on how to capitalize on it or tell an authentic brand story. The vast majority of tech companies appear to know their customers are increasingly making decisions based on brand resonance, and only a small number aren't interested in becoming more authentic brands. Yet most tech companies are still somewhere in the early to middle stages of their brand journeys – not quite ready to sell branded cleaning cloths solely on the strength of their names.

Having covered and worked with companies for years, I know authentic branding is more complicated than it seems. Any lone wolf genius founder was most likely part of a team that split up, today's "core value" actually wasn't part of the original vision, and there may be old skeletons in the corporate closet just waiting to undermine commitments to what matters today. Even a great company can struggle to build an authentic brand that's unimpeachable from top to bottom. 

Wearing both my PR professional and ex-journalist hats, I was elated that the research shows large numbers of companies are actively working to "get real." Rather than just putting on veneers for the press, the vast majority are actually working to align company values with day-to-day operations, become transparent in corporate commitments, and deliver on promised customer experiences. They're not doing this selflessly -- they believe brand authenticity improves customer retention, increases sales, and helps to retain talented employees. Moreover, just as we've seen with reporters and customers, brand strength has become a factor for other companies, who now select or reject partners based on brand perception.

An authentic brand story needn't be perfect

Journalists are trained to be skeptical of company claims, and to some extent, cynicism has led many if not most tech companies to be tarred as lacking purpose beyond profitability. Yet based on our research, tech brands are generally better understood as working to become more transparent, value-focused, and customer-driven. Put another way, they're not perfect but heading in the right direction. In an environment that prizes authenticity, even imperfection – properly framed – will likely drive both reporter interest and customer demand over the next decade.

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Jeremy Horwitz is Allison+Partners' head of content for the Technology group, drawing upon three decades of prior experience as a journalist and entrepreneur to provide brand positioning, media relations, and content development counsel. Specializing in communications for the consumer electronics, semiconductor, gaming, and B2B sectors, he also has a deep background in diverse areas ranging from intellectual property law to popular entertainment, international dining, and luxury hospitality. Technology

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