Four Lessons From IBM’s Centennial Advertising

Page One of IBM's 4-Page Insert

“Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the
complex symbol which is the brand image.”

– David Ogilvy

In recognition of its founding 100 years ago, last week IBM produced a 2,592-word, four-page advertising insert that ran for just one day in the U.S. issues of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Washington Post.

Although few companies have the resources or courage to produce “old media” advertising on this scale, IBM’s Centennial insert embodies several important lessons for marketers at companies of all sizes and industries. Here are four take-aways:

  1. The message was well-targeted and on point. IBM was speaking primarily to investors, through the nation’s 3 most widely read daily publications. By pointing out that 100 shares of IBM stock purchased in 1915 would be worth $200 million today, the company was entitled to state that “90 day reporting cycles” are not IBM’s end game…a clear message to Wall Street analysts and institutional investors. Lesson for Marketers: Define your target audiences, reach them through appropriate channels and make your point clearly. Sounds like Marketing 101, but many ads are placed for prestige and ego rather than for impact, and it’s often a mystery what most advertisers are trying to accomplish.
  2. The layout accommodated all types of readers. IBM understands that most people are surface readers, focusing only on heads, subheads, graphics and captions. Although the body copy was 1,888 words in length, the ad’s layout accommodated those quick-scan readers with eye-catching and interesting graphics, and also cleverly footnoted each graphic element as a means to draw readers into the main text. Lesson for Marketers: Regardless of the medium, you have a nano-second to catch someone’s interest, and if you’re lucky enough to accomplish that goal, you have even less time to make your point. Don’t make people work to understand your message…because they won’t.
  3. The ad was part of an integrated campaign. This advertising insert served as one small part of a larger IBM strategy to leverage its 100th anniversary as a marketing asset. Other components of this well-structured campaign include a book; short films; colloquia, lectures and thought leadership forums; a dedicated website (, and 2.5 million hours of volunteer community service provided by IBM employees around the world. Lesson for Marketers: One-off tactics — even those conducted over periods longer than one day — seldom produce meaningful results. IBM’s marketing budget is larger than total revenue at most companies, but those companies can be just as smart as IBM, in terms of building marketing programs that are integrated and strategic, rather than a collection of tactics.
  4. Their appeal was honest and human. In addition to its longevity, IBM has much to brag about. But this ad was written with humility and sincerity, and did not appear self-serving or overly promotional. In fact, a prominent graphic in the ad featured 3 of the company’s “share of misses,” including IBM PCjr, its OS/2 operating system and its Prodigy online service. Lesson for Marketers: Copywriting style aside, and regardless of the tactic, it’s more powerful to present the evidence that supports your value proposition and let your audience draw its own conclusions, than it is to tell your audience how wonderful you are.

This advertisement is a reflection of IBM’s marketing craftsmanship, and suggests a bright outlook for their second century. In fact, you might consider purchasing 100 shares — currently trading at around $165 per share — for your grandchildren.

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