This is a story about how a gorilla taught some engineers to speak like human beings.
In the summer of 2010, senior management at the industrial glass company Corning Inc. realized they had an opportunity to create something entirely new. That in itself wasn't unusual: For more than 160 years, the company's laboratories has pushed the envelope of material science, creating high-tech if unglamorous products like fibre optic cable. This new development, though, would take place outside the company's tightly controlled labs, in the unpredictable world of consumer marketing.
For about a year, Corning had been selling something called cover glass to consumer electronics manufacturers. As streaming video became more widespread, smart phones and tablet computers have begun using cover glass to provide better clarity and more resistance to shocks and other damage. In 2009, Corning had sold about $43-million of its cover glass. By the middle of 2010, sales were projected to hit about $250-million.
They called the product Gorilla Glass, and they thought that if they marketed it correctly, it could become a valuable consumer brand. "We wanted you as a consumer to go in to an electronics store and say, 'I want to see the cellphones that have Gorilla Glass.' That was the strategy," says Daniel Collins, Corning's vice-president of communications. "So we went beyond our customer, to our customer's customer. We also wanted to make cover glass in essence – and therefore Gorilla Glass – the industry standard."
The only problem was that Corning hadn't marketed to consumers in more than a decade. It didn't know how to talk to them. It didn't even have a formal marketing department. Its New York-based ad agency, Doremus, specializes in business-to-business communications.
Oh sure, for decades, Corning's sturdy cookware had been a much beloved consumer brand. But in 1997, with the company shifting its focus to the business market, it sold off the line to World Kitchen Inc. and closed its consumer marketing department. Marketing products like optical fibre to wireless and cable companies is a wholly different animal. In that context, says Mr. Collins, "A product is really a component. We make optical fibre, but it is encased in cable and buried in the ground."
Doremus developed a campaign that would focus on the attributes Corning felt would most appeal to consumers, boiled down to the tagline: "Tough yet beautiful."
The campaign is an example of something called "ingredient branding," the practice of creating a consumer-friendly image for an internal component that normally would go unseen or unnoticed by people buying a finished product. Ingredient branding isn't new – it stretches back decades, and includes campaigns about pink fibreglass and Teflon on cookware – but it is becoming more commonplace.
In the 2010 book Ingredient Branding: Making the Invisible Visible, Philip Kotler, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, notes there are a number of conditions that must be met if branding a component is going to be successful: It has to be highly differentiated (he cited Gore-Tex as an example); it must be central to the functioning of the product; the company selling the finished product has to invest in marketing the component; branding the component helps the final product stand out from similar products; and the final product is complex and assembled from many components supplied by multiple firms.
Corning had a nifty precedent to follow – another high-tech company that learned the trick of speaking to consumers.
In the mid-1980s, after the computer-chip maker Intel had its application for a trademark on its "386" chip turned down, executives recognized they had to figure out a way of differentiating their product to protect it from becoming commoditized. So, in 1991, they launched the "Intel Inside" co-operative marketing campaign, supporting their customers' ad buys while at the same time securing a sliver of space in those ads directed at consumers. It was a hugely risky move: As Prof. Kotler's book points out, Intel's annual sales were only about $500-million (U.S.), but they threw $110-million into their consumer campaign over the course of three years.
By all measures, it was a success, boosting awareness of Intel among consumers from about 24 per cent to about 95 per cent only a few years later. The strategy was studied and copied around the world, but the case held a cautionary tale: Some experts believe the desktop maker IBM failed to reap much economic benefit from having Intel chips in their personal computers. And the branding success gave Intel greater leverage in negotiations.
Which may be why some marketers prevent Corning from acknowledging that Gorilla Glass is used in their products. Still, Corning is selling the product to more than 20 different brands, which used it in more than 400 products, including Sony's high-end Bravia television, Samsung's Galaxy tablet, Motorola's new Razr phone, and Lenovo ThinkPads.
All are now noting – either buried in their spec sheets or boasting in voiceovers – that they use Gorilla Glass.
Corning launched its consumer campaign in late 2010 with a trio of ads featuring a gorilla using high-tech products as part of his day: a cellphone, or a TV built into a fridge door. The ads weren't tested, Mr. Collins says. For that matter, neither was the name itself. "No, it was just something that stuck, and when we began to look at it we started to think, 'What are the attributes of the product itself? And those are in the advertising: In many ways a gorilla evokes strength, toughness, but it also has a personal appeal – a human side to it if you will – which we thought played with the beauty, the elegance."
Corning added a pair of slow-motion spots to its YouTube channel in the spring of 2011, demonstrating the strength of the glass: In one, a baseball shot at a narrow sheet of glass bounces off it like rubber off cement. In another, it's a bowling ball.
The company has spent an estimated $15-million on media buying for its campaign in the past 13 months – a tiny amount for a brand hoping to lodge itself in consumers' consciousness. But they say internal research shows people are starting to ask for Gorilla Glass.
In early October, Corning made a $25,000 contribution to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, in support of the organization's efforts to protect the animals and their habitat in Africa.
Sales of Gorilla Glass for 2011 are projected to be almost three times last year's levels, landing somewhere between $700-million and $750-million.