“Oracle is at its heart a hardcore technology company,” says Bob Evans, the IT giant’s chief communications officer. After 35 years of building databases, the company is in the midst of changing its marketing focus to create awareness of how its products can be applied to business.
Oracle’s target market is changing too, comprising not just computer technicians but professionals from many other business areas.
Moving to communicate with new audiences outside the traditional IT customer base is not an unusual journey for business-to-business (B2B) technology companies. The largest – by profit, turnover and market capitalisation – is IBM, which has been trying to shift perceptions through its Smarter Planet campaign. The aim is to emphasise the effects of technology on the world.
Financially, it has not worked well of late for IBM. Profits and revenue both shrank in the year to December 2013, while this year’s first-quarter results disappointed stock markets, with revenue down 4 per cent on the same period last year. Oracle’s corresponding figures were up for its most recent quarterly results, though they were also short of analyst expectations.
Oracle does not have IBM’s size or brand value – Millward Brown’s BrandZ ranking of the world’s most valuable brands put the two at 35th and 3rd respectively in 2013. Business software provider SAP also outshined Oracle, at 19th place, despite being a smaller company. However, Evans believes Oracle has a distinctive selling point in helping its business customers adapt to today’s new global business environment “at every level”.
Research company Gartner said in March that Oracle’s software sales exceeded IBM’s for the first time in 2013, putting it second behind the mainly consumer-focused Microsoft.
Evans argues: “Most technology companies try to do things in a narrow slice – they say we’ll do the hardware, the software or the services side. Oracle is willing to say the best way is to put the hardware and the software together.”
As well as competitors IBM and SAP, Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison recently identified Amazon and Salesforce as rivals. Salesforce was formed by former Oracle employee Marc Benioff and the two companies maintain a ‘frenemy’-style relationship as both competitors and strategic partners.
Business technology is a lucrative market where battles are often fought publicly and perhaps no-one in this arena is more active in that regard than Ellison.
Evans says the jibing that goes on in the public eye between competing technology companies as of secondary importance to the conversations about technology that happen among businesses more widely.
“Out of a $70trn [£41trn] global economy, the tech business is around $2trn, but the effect that the business has is dramatically outsized. Because of that there are big, powerful, highly visible companies and you do get into a little bit of ‘inside baseball’. We think there’s a role for that in certain cases but more interesting for us is what’s going on in the business world.”
The increasing complexity of global commerce and the speed of change brought by “more use of big data, social media, video and unstructured information” are key themes that Evans believes mean “traditional IT strategies won’t work” Evans believes. His strategy for communicating business value is to “tell stories of transformation”.
Tech companies could talk in terms of engineering brilliance but not why a bank or retailer is better off for it
One of his key jobs is to uncover compelling case studies of customers using Oracle products and to explain how they have had an effect on the business. Evans is used to finding and telling stories like this, having been a journalist for most of his career. He edited business technology publication InformationWeek; from there he moved to his first communications role at SAP in 2011 and then on to Oracle a year later.
“I wanted to get out of media and into the technology business because I thought there was a chance to do similar things but on a bigger scale. [I thought technology companies] were so good at making technology, but many were not that good at talking to the world about why you should care.
“Tech companies could talk in terms of engineering brilliance but were not so good at saying ‘here’s why a bank is better off, here’s why you in the pharmaceutical field could get a drug to market six months faster, or here’s why you as a retailer can become an omnichannel fulfilment company as opposed to a traditional retailer’.”
Of all the B2B-focused tech companies, Salesforce has perhaps been most effective at recognising the importance of speaking to new customers through the voice of existing ones, given that the business audience is not necessarily technically proficient.
Its Dreamforce conference has become one of the highest-profile dates in the technology industry’s calendar, having been addressed by former US president Bill Clinton, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson and Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer among others. Customers including Philips, Burberry and Facebook have discussed their work with Salesforce for the conference audience.
Evans says the shift to a similar emphasis for Oracle has been accompanied by changes in the way its marketing works, explaining that advertising, field marketing, product marketing and events teams are becoming more interlaced.
Content links all these disciplines together and Evans’ efforts to harvest it through customer stories will undoubtedly be a focal point of future marketing efforts. Its greatest storytelling opportunity had little to do with its products. Instead, it came on the water of San Francisco Bay in September 2013, when Oracle Team USA surmounted an 8-1 deficit to win the 34th America’s Cup yacht race 9-8.
But the story started with a tragedy. In May, British Olympic sailor Andrew Simpson was killed during warm-ups for the event competing for Swedish team Artemis. There was also media criticism about whether the expense of taking part – around $100m for each boat – could be justified when the world economy was in a parlous state.
Evans says “our hearts went out” to Simpson’s family, but regarding the cost he claims the race has a tradition of pushing technological boundaries. “The America’s Cup has always represented the sense that there’s a drive within people that’s very human, about competition, excellence and innovation,” Evans argues.
“For all the money that went into the boats and the technology, it is ultimately about people. It inspired different levels of conversations that we never could have had in a different sort of environment.”
As well as using Oracle’s own websites and social media channels to disseminate this content, Evans is also looking to other platforms, and the trend for ‘native advertising’. An example is Forbes.com’s BrandVoice, where advertisers’ own comment articles are featured in a dedicated area of the publisher’s site.
Having been a journalist, Evans is cautious about the execution: “As long as it’s steered by the reader interest and doesn’t create dissonance in the minds of the readers, I think this is alright, but it’s also incumbent on the people creating the content to identify who they are and where they’re from.”
Ultimately, the content strategy will be driven by the same trends behind Oracle’s overall communications strategy. The world is becoming more connected, so any failure to put the customer’s needs first will immediately backfire, as Evans recognises.
“The risk that you run by trying to be self-serving instead of audience serving is bigger than it has been before. They will drop you, and as we see from studies on social media, they won’t come back. Readers are smart. They know when somebody is pushing a lot of BS at them.”
Need to know: trends in B2B marketing
Business technology brands are focusing less on what their products do, and more on the impacts in the real world.
This means they are marketing to professionals in different lines of business, not just IT.
New communications models are needed to react to this, and also to the increasing complexity of global, connected commerce.
The key ways of adapting are by focusing on communicating more through customers’ stories, and using the content that comes from them.