Brand Steward Perspective
“I love my ThinkPad.”
This phrase or something like it makes being associated with this enduring brand a pleasure. I’ve heard it for decades.
ThinkPad is 25 years young. It’s an evergreen and more than a brand – its’s a category creator.
Delivering speeches around the world I would regularly say that “I spend more time with my ThinkPad than I do with my wife.” What a relationship. There are implications.
When running computers on batteries and taking them with you was new, IBM ThinkPad is a pioneer. Today in the hands of Lenovo, ThinkPad is a category benchmark.
It succeeds on culture and brand resilience as much as it does on engineering and quality.
As a brand, ThinkPad is actually 70 years old.
Before it was a notebook computer it was a small pad of paper in a leather cover with the word “Think” embossed on it. Think is the IBM company motto. A customer give-away in sales meetings and trade shows – and customers called them “Think Pads.” This goes back to the mid-1940s.
…and IBM ThinkPad was a tablet computer before it was a notebook computer in 1990. Like all notebook computers at the time, they were limited to vertical industry uses, and many failed. Lucky for IBM, since the name was then available to apply to IBM ThinkPad notebook computers as envisioned by design consultant Richard Sapper.
As “the father of ThinkPad” Arimasa Naitoh recalls in his new book How ThinkPad Changed The World with co-author William Holstein – new technology was available to integrate in the early 1990’s that would result in the iconic ThinkPad form and signature elements.
Black. Rectangular. Red Trackpoint.
Richard Sapper envisioned a Japanese bento box used for meals. Black laquer. When you lift the lid, a there is a surprise on the inside: at the time a color screen that was newly available and the breakthrough Trackpoint navigation pointer developed by Ted Selker at IBM Watson Research Labs.
The logo was also strategically positioned in the corner of the cover – faces the owner when closed vs. positioned as advertising by competitors when open – and has always been at 37.5-degree angle to make the ThinkPad and IBM ThinkPad tri-color logo lock up distinctive and playful.
Several years later IBM introduced the IBM ThinkPad 701C, the “Butterfly” keyboard notebook computer. It unfolded and extended when you opened the keyboard. This mechanical engineering sensation was created by John Karidis again from IBM Watson Research Labs, and although produced for only a brief period of time, became part of the innovation legacy and reputation of ThinkPad.
These initial imprints in the early laptop and notebook computer category would continue to this day with ThinkPad as a remarkably resilient and enduring brand.
Working on design with the remarkable Richard Sapper is initially and briefly with Sam Lucente in the U.S. and for many years with Kaz Yamazaki and his Asia Pacific Technical Operations design team in Yamato, Japan. The long-term design management leadership for years would be invested in David Hill and his team that spanned the IBM and Lenovo years right up to this 25th anniversary.
As the first brand steward for ThinkPad, I spent a lot of time with David and Kaz. They were partners on a daily basis to keep the brand vibrant and relevant.
I was once given the privilege of visiting Richard Sapper alone at his studio in Il Castillo, Milan, Italy. It was like visiting DaVinci at home – visual ideas of all sorts were in the state of becoming all around us. At the end of the day, he pulled the wall open and it became his living room where we drank wine and talked about the future of ThinkPad and what it could become.
The brand steward partnership with design was foundational. Here’s why: yong and ti. Ti means “essence” and Yong means “practical use” in Chinese philosophy – also called substance and function – inseparable parts of a whole system.
My role as brand steward was to listen for “ti” so the brand could lead and deliver “yong” in design and engineering. I was also the voice of intention – what did we want to do for customers – so we would get authentic attention for the brand that would accumulate and grow over time. I still use these principles in professional practice today.
The core “ti” of ThinkPad was and is today: Success.
ThinkPad is a success delivery system and tool for exploring the frontiers of business and human endeavor – and successful people choose ThinkPad to support their work.
How did I become a brand steward? I did not set out to do it. It landed on my shoulders in a battlefield promotion. In a meeting at Ogilvy & Mather “BrandPrint” research was shared with us that “success” is the core idea people held about the brand. This was a year after the announcement of the ThinkPad Butterfly notebook.
At the end of the presentation, the Ogilvy team told our vice president of marketing at the time, Per Larsen, that they would appoint a “brand steward” for us from their team to protect and nurture the ThinkPad brand. Per held up his hand slightly to stop the conversation. It was quiet in the room. It seemed like minutes went by, yet it was likely only 30 seconds or so. Per then looked up and said, “thank you for your offer. Kevin will be Brand Steward.” He looked over at me and my professional life was transformed from that moment on. Thank you Per, and thank you to the men and women who continue to collectively steward ThinkPad so well today.
The most enduring part of my work with the ThinkPad team was the global customer research and market segmentation performed just before Y2K and the year 2000 transformation of the ThinkPad line into an interoperable family of devices (interchangeable parts and system hard-drive images). A case written by Dr. John Lynch at Duke Fuqua School of Business and today teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder Leeds Business School documents the moment and strategic inflection point, and is still used in classrooms today.
As the protagonist in the case, my insight was to conduct the first mobile computing industry behavioral research study. How are people using notebook computers? What are they doing with them? Where are they doing it?
It was a huge breakthrough as we brought the voice-of-the-customer closer into the decision making of the PC business. Just before this moment we were struggling with getting the parts together – and keeping them together reliably. The supply chain was unstable and parts shortages where common that would stop the manufacturing line and delay ship dates and customer commitments.
Behavioral customer views helped us unleash a new wave innovation that was market-inspired. For instance: ThinkLight that illuminates the keyboard; hard-drive “air bag” protection; Ultrabays that sport second batteries, storage devices and hard drives, numeric keypads, and other options.
We would propose and development leaders like Fran O’Sullivan, Peter Hortensius and Naitoh-san would make it happen. Designers like David Hill, Kaz Yamazaki and Tom Takahaski would make it both stand out, and fit it to the brand.
I thank Dilip Bhatia and Luis Hernandez for inviting me to join recent celebrations and share stories about building the ThinkPad brand with team members and current and former executives. On stage recently for ThinkPad employees at Lenovo’s U.S. headquarters with David Hill, Arimasa Naitoh, Tony Corkell, Luis Hernandez, Sam Dusi, and Jerry Paradise – with roundtable moderated by Dilip Bhatia.
ThinkPad will continue. In conversations with Lenovo CTO Yong Rui and other leaders I’m encouraging ThinkPad to both remain iconic and evolve.
The mobile development team in Boca in the early days was Leo Suarez, Sam Dusi, Ron Sperano, and Mark Cohen. Leo was the inventor of “suspend/resume” – close the cover of the notebook and it goes to sleep.
I believe it’s time to suspend the currently held concepts about what ThinkPad is today to embrace what it can become tomorrow. As the first brand steward for ThinkPad, I believe the “ti” or essence of what ThinkPad does for people can move purposefully into a smart world and a be a brand player in the emerging world of machine learning and AI.
These iconic elements have the potential to become many purposeful things that are part of a high-quality success delivery system.
People spend a lot of time with their ThinkPads. There are implications in an era of attention-gravity as the most successful business models. A shift from transactional revenue to annuity for ThinkPad and Lenovo.
Suspending unjustified assumptions about ThinkPad in its current “yong” and resuming a path that continues to embrace the “ti” iconic roots of “Think” and the ability to keep ideas as “Pad” will shape the next 25 years of what ThinkPad can be and become.
Kevin ClarkBrand Steward, emeritus
ThinkPad and Think family of computer offerings
© Copyright Kevin A. Clark 2017