Sun pushes Java brand harder--but uphill

What to do when John Q. Public has heard of your programming environment but doesn't seem to care? Why, make it the star of a TV show.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read
It may not rise to the popularity of "Antiques Roadshow," but Sun Microsystems is betting a new TV show will help boost recognition of its Java software.

The 30-minute program, called "Mobile Entertainment World," will be sponsored by Sun and perhaps by phone service sellers, said Ingrid van den Hoogen, Sun's new vice president of brand experience and community marketing. It's one of several efforts the Santa Clara, Calif.-based server maker has undertaken as part of a multimillion-dollar program to make average people aware of the Java brand.


What's new:
Sun is expanding a campaign to establish Java in the minds of ordinary people, not just programmers and tech aficionados.

Bottom line:
It won't be easy--building high-tech brands is tough, especially when a company relies on partners that have their own brands to promote, as is the case with Sun and Java.

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Sun has finished the pilot for the 13-episode TV series, which is geared chiefly for European audiences that are more prone to gadget envy after seeing segments on games and cutting-edge Japanese consumers, van den Hoogen said at the recent JavaOne trade show.

But Sun still has a long way to go before it gets the average Joe to know what Java's steaming coffee cup logo represents.

Probably a lot of people would say they recognize the Java name, but a "really low percentage" understand what it does, said Greg Sieck, an associate partner at Prophet, a San Francisco-based branding company. Getting consumers to understand the "functional benefit of a Java-enabled device--that's going to be a real tough slog," he said.

Sun introduced Java in 1995 but recognizes the branding plan still isn't even halfway done. If establishing the Java brand is a 10-chapter book, Sun is in chapter 4 or 5 right now, van den Hoogen said. "I would argue we are going to do a lot more. We're going to be spinning that up next year," she said, referring to the fiscal year that has since begun, on July 1.

She declined to share budget figures, but when the campaign began a year ago, the company and partners expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, said Jonathan Schwartz, then head of Sun's software group and now the company's chief operating officer.

Java's promise
Java is software that lets a single program run on a variety of different computers--for example, those running Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. It hasn't displaced Windows for desktop computers, as Sun had hoped, but it has caught on widely on mobile phones and powerful server computers.

The Java phenomenon is dependent not just on Sun, but also on business partners such as mobile phone makers Motorola and Nokia and server software sellers IBM and BEA Systems. Indeed, in many cases it's been those partners, not Sun, that capitalized on Java.

Sieck said he believes the Java-branding campaign likely has two motivations: first, to create consumer demand for Java and therefore stronger incentives for technology partners to support it; and second, to instill the idea that Sun isn't just a server maker but also a software company.

High-tech branding campaigns can reach ordinary consumers. The prime example is the "Intel Inside" campaign, through which the chipmaker partly subsidizes PC maker's advertising costs if they include Intel's logo. Intel says the program is supported by 2,400 PC makers has been used in $11 billion worth of advertisements since it was launched in 1991.

But branding can go awry, even for giants such as Microsoft, whose name is widely recognized. Microsoft dropped a plan to label numerous products ".Net"--Microsoft's answer to Java, among other things--after concluding that it wasn't clear exactly what the term meant.

".Net was applied to a ton of products," RedMonk analyst James Governor said. "Microsoft eventually said, 'Hmm, we're not sure that was such a good idea.'"

Riding on coattails
Sun's biggest consumer success with Java has been on mobile phones, where the software can be used to purchase, download and run games. Sun says 350 million Java phones have been shipped, but in that market, it's other companies, such as Vodafone and Nokia, that have a relationship with the customer.

Sun competes with these partners when it comes to establishing the Java sub-brand, said Fritz Grutzner, vice president of brand strategy at branding company Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, in Madison, Wis.

As a parallel, Briggs & Stratton, which makes small engines for machines such as lawn mowers, is trying to raise awareness of its brand, but a partner with a strong brand, such as John Deere, might not be enthusiastic.

"If you're not going directly to the consumer and controlling the image of what you want them to think, ultimately you depend on the manufacturer to do it," Grutzner said. "What they're finding difficult is to rely on the manufacturer of the equipment to build your brand...Motorola or Nokia want to build their own brand."

Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications sells several Java-enabled cell phone models and promotes Java programming with developer contests and other activities. But at least now, its mobile phone customers are looking for useful features, not the Java brand, said Mimmis Olsson, communications manager for Sony Ericsson's developer program.

"Most consumers don't really care much about the technology," Olsson said. "They're more interested in what they can use the phones for--the applications."

Sony Ericsson doesn't expect to include the Java logo on the cell phone itself, but the company is contractually required to flash the image when a Java program starts up on a phone, said Mikael Nerde, head of the company's developer program.

Bumps in the road
Two of the clearest examples of the Java branding effort happened in 2003, when Sun named its server software suite the "Java Enterprise System" and its Linux-based desktop operating system the "Java Desktop System." JES uses Java extensively, and Sun plans a similar direction for JDS, van den Hoogen said.

The JES label, however, ruffled feathers of other Java server software companies, van den Hoogen said. As a result, Sun began a "Java Powered" program to make it easier for partners to sport the Java brand.

"Yeah, we got some calls. That's how the 'Java Powered' program came about," van den Hoogen said.

The previous Java logo program, "100 Percent Pure Java," was a dud because of difficult and expensive certification requirements, she said. "Few people passed, and it was very expensive," van den Hoogen said.

In any case, Van den Hoogen doesn't think BEA, a Java server software power, would rename its WebLogic product something like Java WebLogic. "They already have their own brand equity," she said.

BEA declined to comment for this report.

Another hurdle was in the mobile phone arena, where the profusion of different hardware and Java standards undermined Java's "write once, run anywhere" promise. There, Sun uses a stricter certification program called "Java Verified." Several mobile phone service companies, including Orange, Vodafone and T-Mobile, are requiring that software they offer for download to phones pass the program, she said.

As Linux's penguin mascot, Tux, has demonstrated, cute mascots can bring some warmth to otherwise daunting technology. Here, Sun has a ready-made image, Duke, an abstract, chevron-shaped character with a clownish red nose.

Duke has never been as prominent as Java's coffee cup logo, but Sun hopes to change that. "We're trying to bring him back a little bit," van den Hoogen said.

Perhaps it's emblematic that the Duke message hasn't spread far yet. Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy has called the eyeless, mouthless creature a "molar."