Analysis: HP's New Ad Campaign Puts Partners Front And Center

Launched this week with the tagline, "What could be more direct than face to face?" HP is borrowing from Dell's direct-sales marketing playbook, which helped turn the company into the fastest growing hardware vendor in IT " and also made many customers skeptical of the channel.

But everything seems to be going in favor of HP and its partners these days: According to data released by Gartner on Wednesday, HP outpaced Dell in worldwide PC sales by three points in the fourth quarter, putting the two companies in a dead heat for the year. Now HP is hoping its new ad campaign, which touts the virtues of buying personal systems through the channel, will push it over the top for good.

The ads debuted Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal and are slated to appear in business and news publications in 21 key markets. Not only do the ads highlight some benefits channel partners can bring, but they also debunk some direct sales myths, such as the notion that PCs bought directly are less expensive and can be procured faster.

Most important, the ads include a Web address that shows customers how to find a local solution provider. In geographically targeted ads that will start appearing next month, HP will bear the cost of cross-promoting selected partners as well. The key message is "a direct phone conversation with [Dell] may get you some help, but you will get a lot more help if you choose a face-to-face meeting with a value-added reseller," says Tom LaRocca, HP's vice president of partner development and programs. Solution providers say they see this as a huge opportunity to leverage their own branding efforts on the coattails of HP, which, they say, has been stingy with leads in years past.

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Daniel Ruymann, senior director of business development and marketing at HP Platinum Partner Sigmanet, says the campaign is a significant boon to the channel.

"It's the first time HP has showcased the value of its partners," says Ruymann, whose co-oped ads with HP are slated to appear in the Los Angeles Times and Orange Country Register. "People are more used to seeing ads that are geared to Dell's media blitz over the past decade highlighting its direct-sales model has become too familiar to customers. A lot of commercial and midmarket customers have forgotten about the channel."

But HP's new campaign comes at a time when solution providers are trying to tow the line between leading with vendors and marketing their own brands. Ruymann doesn't see leveraging HP's marketing in conflict with Sigmanet's own branding efforts.

"It opens doors," he says of leveraging the brands of tier-one vendors. "We view our services as complimentary to the offerings of the tier one manufactures and distributors."

Jon Whitlock, vice president of marketing at CBE Systems, says the HP campaign will boost his company's own marketing efforts.

"I am not trying to disconnect my name with HP by any means, and I won't because it's a strong partnership," he says. "It adds equity to our business."

For its part, HP insists it is sensitive to partners desire to step up their own branding efforts. "We are very interested in co-branding their name with the HP name," says Lisa Baker, director of volume marketing for HP's Personal Systems Group.

HP officials are quick to point out that this is a nine-month pilot for personal systems, but all indications suggest the company is in it for the long haul. Other product groups will be watching this effort closely, and it's very possible this campaign will extend to such areas as printing, servers, storage, and services, Baker says.

HP annual budget for business to business marketing is $208 million, according to BtoB Magazine's Top 100 Advertisers report. HP would not say how much of that budget will be spent on this effort, other than to say it is making a significant investment.