IBM's Smarter Planet: A belief, a purpose, a behavior, and an advertising campaign

IBM's Smarter Planet -- a campaign theme that has united the company's mission and marketing for the last five years -- offers marketers a number of lessons in the areas of positioning, advertising, content creation, social behavior and more.


  1. It's not the kind of advertising that regularly makes its way onto the creative journals' top 10 lists. It doesn't necessarily make you want to post it on Facebook or share it with  friends. It probably wins more Effies than Cannes. But Smarter Planet is most definitely smart. Brilliant, even. It's a tagline, an ad campaign, a social media program, an attempt to educate customers and influencers, a library of thought leadership, an employee motivational program, and a clearly defined corporate mission.  Most importantly it's a way to sell IBM and its services by framing the importance of, and the need to, harness the intelligence in the world's and a company's connected data.

    After reading my last long blog post on big ideas, started here, on Storify, John Kennedy, IBM's chief of corporate communications, contacted me to talk about Smarter Planet and its place in the pantheon of Big Ideas. 

    It got me thinking that Smarter Planet is a perfect case study for any of us working on comprehensive brand content programs as it has all of the components, albeit on a scale grander than most brands could ever afford. 

    Nevertheless it's a solid example of taking a core business idea and bringing it to life in the form of lots of little ideas, distributed content, attention generating experiences, utility and platforms, and social engagement that invites participation.

    Here's just one way to look at its components.
  2. Positioning and a Big Idea

    A Smarter Planet, and Let's Build a Smarter Planet is a Big Idea by any definition. It's a corporate vision, tagline, a call to action, and a selling platform all rolled into one. And it was timely, launched in 2008 in the midst of a global recession and a business environment looking for answers to its many pressing problems.

    A Launch Strategy

    The campaign wasn't launched with an ad campaign that sold, but with a speech from the CEO to the Council on Foreign Relations. It was quickly followed up with a series of thought leadership, long copy print ads in the newspapers that still matter -- The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Financial Times. Later it became stories that described IBM's research and their successes in the marketplace. All told by real employees who could put a face on a large corporation.

    Brand Identity

    The colorful brand identity system -- from logos to stark BtoB print ads -- defied the dreary conventions of the category and lent itself to applications in print, TV, online, in social and in smartphone apps.


    Thought leadership pieces, print ads by vertical industry, outdoor for visibility, TV ads and sponsorships made the campaign work by reaching employees, existing customers, senior management and all the other constituencies IBM needed to influence or at least make aware. Including Mr. Obama.

    Content and storytelling

    For an old company you'd expect to be less than nimble, IBM made its presence felt on every single social platform out there. 
    Instagram (nothing there yet, but they've got their name)
    Storify (where it aggregates its weekly Twitter conversations)


    Watson. Need we say more.

    Social behavior

    More importantly, IBM asked all of its 430,000 employees to be social and to get in the mindset that IBM is in the business of sharing its knowledge.
  3. Further elaboration.
  4. The Big Idea
  5. Smarter Planet launched five years ago, initially as an advertising idea intended to communicate IBM’s determination to share knowledge, start a dialog with customers, and inspire a 400,000 plus workforce to see value in their research and thinking.


    IBM wasn’t looking for a campaign as much as it was seeking an agenda, one rooted in making the world better.


    It was 2008.  Economic malaise was everywhere. The business environment called for ideas and encouragement, not sales pitches. If the economy wasn’t bad enough, health care, transportation, food safety and energy all posed new, sometimes overwhelming, challenges. The timing was perfect for an initiative designed to get people thinking about how the Internet, technology, data and the right systems might combine to solve problems and create opportunity.


    Partnering with its agency Ogilvy Worldwide, IBM's internal and external team landed on Let’s Build a Smarter Planet. It was a big, Big Idea. It was an agenda, a call to action, a commitment to sharing knowledge that would help, and a promise to customers new and old. More importantly, it was rooted in the company’s vision intentions, and ongoing practices. Some brand ideas emerge as contrived ideas. Smarter Planet appeared to be baked in.

    Of course Smarter Planet was designed to build global business for IBM. But it needed an approach commensurate with the moment.  "We were looking for a way to share knowledge that would be useful," explained Kennedy. "We needed something to say and share more than something to sell. And we had to do it in a respectful way."

    According IBM agency Ogilvy in its 2010 Gold Effie winner submission, "IBM wanted the world to understand it could solve some of the world's most challenging problems." It had done so for business all along, and could now apply data based solutions on a much larger scale.

  6. The Launch Strategy: It began with a speech
  7. I doubt many people ever watched it, but the company launched Smarter Planet not with an ad campaign but with an hour long speech to the Council on Foreign Relations from its then CEO Sam Palmisano. (Don't watch it; just posted it here as a reference.) Even without the views, the formality, the press coverage, and the story cemented Smarter Planet as something greater and more significant than advertising.
  8. A Smarter Planet: The Next Leadership Agenda
  9. Next came a thought leadership campaign. Again, not sure many people read them every Monday when they appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Financial Times. But the ads made a statement and provided a reference for employees, influencers, customers and advocates. (According to IBM, Smarter Planet was primarily an internally-generated idea. But Ogilvy was essential, both as a creative partner and in expressing the idea (see brand identity from Office below), giving it presence, adding substance and content, and developing all of the advertising assets. Much of the following work was by the agency or its selected partners.)
  10. Brand Identity
  11. Ogilvy worked with design firm Office in the creation of the campaign's identity system.
  12. Below, an early sketch from photographer Craig Cutler, later turned into an early print ad in the campaign.
  13. Advertising
  14. One of the very first Smarter Planet TV spots. All about data and its ultimate promise.
  15. Pretty strong and iconic print for the B2B category.