So, farewell, Smarter Planet?

So, farewell, Smarter Planet?

I’ll confess my heart sank a little when I read earlier this week that IBM was replacing its Smarter Planet brand platform with something called ‘Cognitive Business’.

Now, these things come and go, and this is actually only IBM’s third update in 20 years. It lasted seven of those, which is pretty impressive by any standards. But we will still miss it, and I suspect IBM will too.

Somehow, Smarter Planet felt more than your average brand platform, especially coming from an industry that generally talks about itself in terms only the rest of the industry truly understands. It sat comfortably alongside the likes of GE's Ecomagination or even Unilever's Sustainable Living.

IBM is launching a new Cognitive Business consulting unit, built around Watson, its highly intelligent ‘cognitive computing system’, which pulls in data from a myriad of sources, reading them in seconds and finding trends, answers and patterns faster than any of us could possibly hope to. Oh, and it speaks. It once appeared, crushing the competition, on the US game show Jeopardy. In the new campaign ads it is pictured, Siri-like, holding conversations with the likes of Bob Dylan and Ken Jennings, one of its Jeopardy victims.

Pretty bold, you might argue and, as Ad Age points out, reflective of our current obsession with all things artificial intelligence, data and robotics. It will no doubt push the buttons of IBM’s large IT customer base.

But Smarter Planet somehow felt different. In an age when so many brands are searching for their core purpose, it felt like IBM had found its. A genuinely integrated way of articulating its corporate vision, motivating its people and giving purpose to its marketing beyond pure sales. It had wider appeal, connecting with the non-tech leaders of our biggest companies, our biggest cities and even those of us who bought the hardware in more modest volumes.

It chimed with the global sustainability agenda. World leaders, as well as IT leaders, would hear IBM’s view on how technology could help us solve some of our biggest global challenges. The campaign was launched with a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, followed up with a series of long-copy, thought-leadership ads. That set the tone and it grew from there into a multi-faceted, highly social campaign, as explained in this excellent case history by Edward Boches.

Of course, one campaign line doesn’t change an underlying sense of purpose. You can argue, as IBM does, that Cognitive Business builds on what’s come before. That it’s a natural evolution and that Smarter Planet has run its course. The world gets it now.

But words matter, and the latest brand platform has a narrower, distinctly more commercial feel, directly connected to its core business and a little less connected to broader society. But that, I suspect, is the point.

It does bring into question, however, whether sustainability ultimately sells. The world has definitely moved on since it was first launched and, despite the current profile of Climate Week, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Road to Paris, I can’t help feeling there’s a brand tracker somewhere saying Smarter Planet just wasn’t doing it for corporate IT buyers.

With the weight of expectation on our corporate brands, finding that balance between commercial and wider purpose is critical in today’s world. So it would be a great shame if the broader sentiment behind Smarter Planet disappeared. Encouragingly, the IBM website still appears to be full of it, so perhaps it’s not such a departure as first appears. And, if IBM’s record of investment in its brand platforms is anything to go by, there’s a lot more telling of this story to come.

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