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By Carl Howe

[Click on the map for a larger version]

OK, people have had a few days since Labor Day to get up to speed. So answer a quick question: What high-tech company revamped multiple product lines at a major event this week?

I completely understand if you answered Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Apple has been all over the news this week, but it only updated one of its four product lines: the iPod.

The answer I was looking for was Hewlett Packard (NYSE:HPQ), who bundled up 39 notebooks, desktops, monitors, handhelds, TVs, and other miscellaneous consumer products, shipped them into New York City for the beginning of Fashion Week, and introduced the lot under the theme "Your Life is the Show" at Skylight Studios. They brought in tennis star Serena Williams, skateboarder Shawn White, Supermodel Petra Nemcova, and a host of others. The new HP print spokesperson, Gwen Stefani, wasn't there, but we presume that was only due to a scheduling conflict.

That's not a product introduction; that's a trade show. And based upon the press coverage and reaction to the initiative as shown in Friday's Newsmap graphic above, it appears to have been a complete waste of money. Apple, outlined in blue, got thousands of news stories written about its event. HP? About 66, as illustrated by the little box outlined in red.

Now make no mistake, this was professionally executed. It was just the marketing strategy that was a disaster.

So what did HP do that was so wrong? HP's introduction fell flat because it:

  • Didn't identify a target audience. HP lumped business systems like workstations in with consumer-oriented products like electronic picture frames in the same event. Now imagine you are the CIO of Proctor & Gamble. Would you allocate an evening of your valuable time to go hear Shawn White boast about how great HP's consumer products are? Not a chance.
  • Lumped too many products together. No attendee is going to remember 39 products presented at the same event; our brains just don't work that way. Rather than narrowing down the focus of the event to a few things it wanted to promote, it diluted its story so much that reporters were left to just choose their favorite product to write about. The result: most of the products were never noticed by both attendees and the press.
  • Didn't articulate a meaningful message. Without a clear target audience and some targeted products to introduce, HP had no chance of communicating any meaningful reason that consumers and businesses should be paying attention to this event. But even so, the press release reads more like a laundry list than news. And no wonder -- with so many products to cover, no writer could have told a coherent story about all of them.
  • Lost sight of the goal of the event. Presumably, the goal of this event was to sell HP products, at least indirectly. So why was it tied to Fashion Week in New York? Did HP think that the fashion press were going to be the major influencers of PC or iPAQ purchases this year? And if so, why?
  • HP invited more than a thousand industry influencers, partners, customers, and notables. It probably spent millions of dollars putting this event together, especially given the crush of attendees to Fashion Week in New York. Yet Apple's Steve Jobs, renting a hall in San Francisco and inviting a few hundred press people, got about 100 times the number of stories written about this launch of four products than HP got for its launch of 39. HP should feel out-marketed because it was.

    I don't mean to pick on HP. Most of the computer industry is in this same boat with regard to bad marketing, perhaps because hardware makers take so many of their cues from Microsoft's notoriously bad messaging. But mistakes like this are not harmless. Bad marketing makes a company look incapable of doing business well. It erodes a company's brand value and eventually its market value. And when that happens, investors lose money, a lot of people lose their jobs, and business moves to another company who is actually willing to focus their message and market well.

    HP could get its marketing act together by doing events that have focus, clarity, and purpose. The alternative is to keep marketing the same feel-good but unfocused way and keep watching Apple's taillights as it eclipses HP in influence, market capitalization, and eventually, market share. This competition isn't about how many dollars get spent; it's about how those dollars are spent. And at the moment, Apple is winning -- big time.