Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Can This Broken Robot Help Save Cisco Systems?

If you watched Sunday’s two conference-championship football games in the U.S. and paid any attention whatsoever to the commercials, there’s a good chance you saw the ad spot (embedded below) from Cisco Systems.

The spot depicts a batch of assembly-line robots busily building cars, as an instrumental version of the 1979 Gary Numan hit “Cars” plays happily. All is well until one of the robots experiences trouble and complains to the others, “I’m broken.” No problem, one of the others says, fixes his stricken comrade, and all is again well. Cue the voice-over, saying something about assembly lines that repair themselves. Then cue the corporate logo, aaaand … out.

The spot — which has exactly 100 percent less Ellen Page than the last series of Cisco TV ads — is part of a significant new advertising offensive that Cisco is launching today on television, in print and online. The TV spots will appear during the NCAA basketball games, the National Hockey League’s All-Star Skills Competition, and on CNBC and other business-oriented programming. However, it notably won’t appear during the Super Bowl.

Those robots will be seen again, disassembling and reassembling sections of certain Web sites as part of a series of “site takeovers,” including CNBC and The Street, among others.

The print portion is a six-page “manifesto” that explains ways that Cisco’s “Human Network” plays important and unexpected roles at banking companies and companies that sell chutney, and helps the National Basketball Association push its video around the world. The manifesto will appear in The Wall Street Journal (which, like this Web site, is owned by News Corp.), the Economist and the New York Times.

There will also be a social campaign via LinkedIn that goes after 140,000 C-level executives registered on that network. It will be the first time that embedded video will be used in a LinkedIn campaign. More TV ads will come later this year, as will localized versions of the campaign for international markets.

Last week, I talked with Blair Christie, Cisco’s chief marketing officer, who said that the manifesto in particular is about using the voice of its customers to show how Cisco’s technology can help companies do things they couldn’t do before. Of course, the point they’re supposed to get is that a Cisco intelligent network is what’s enabling them to do that.

Christie says it’s all part of Cisco’s effort to simplify how it communicates about itself. There’s no more muddling of the message. There’s no more consumer division to eat into the perception that Cisco is anything but an enterprise- and service-provider-focused networking company, so no more need for cute ads that overdo awkward jokes about teleconferencing, or showing a giggly twentysomething woman in a virtual fitting room. Cisco is now about transforming how companies do what they do, either by doing it better, or seeing new opportunities. It’s a big message, and a tricky one to get across in 30 seconds during a football game.

I asked Christie about the state of Cisco’s brand before this campaign, and whether or not there were any perceived weaknesses, given its recent troubles, that this ad effort is meant to shore up. “There was actually a lot that was right with our brand,” she told me. “The opportunity we had was clear and simple. Our customer voice is our talent, and that’s what we’re showing, and it’s consistent with our strategy. We use our customers as a test bed, so why not use them as a reflection of our brand? It wasn’t rocket science. But it was the customer voice that was missing.”

Simplifying and streamlining are themes that Cisco is certainly acquainted with of late. It has been doing a lot of those, and indeed, even shrinking itself as part of a broad-based restructuring. The results of that effort are starting to show up in Cisco’s results.

Time will tell if this new advertising campaign will help Cisco effectively reintroduce itself to its core customers; fight off strong competitive thrusts from the likes of Hewlett-Packard, whose networking division marketed itself aggressively against Cisco in 2010; and perhaps press a perceived advantage against Juniper Networks, which has been having its own problems.

What I find notable, or maybe missing from the campaign, are recognizable names of customers doing innovative things. Yes, there’s the NBA, but in the print manifesto, who’s the bank that’s using Cisco’s video TelePresence to interact with customers? Who’s the small chutney company that turned “browsers into buyers”? And who’s the car company with such smart assembly-line robots? It’s a good message that, to my mind, could be made a lot more effective with more specific examples.

And while I grant it’s often difficult to get customers to agree to be named in ads like this — you could almost hear CEO John Chambers’s frustration about not being allowed to name a certain banking customer, about which he was obviously proud, on a recent conference call — the biggest networking company in the world shouldn’t have such a problem. It should be able to brag that this or that household-name bank is an enthusiastic Cisco customer, and that Cisco networks powered the manufacturing of that popular car everyone is talking about right now. That would add some real oomph, and really serve to remind potential customers that Cisco is still, despite its recent missteps, the networking world’s alpha dog.

Anyhow, my critique aside, here’s the robots spot. Enjoy:

Cisco Robots from Arik Hesseldahl on Vimeo.


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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo