Intel "Rock Star" by Venables Bell & Partners (2009)
July 18th 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Intel, the business that has arguably done more to make the computing revolution of the past half-century possible than any other company. For a corporation specialising in technology components that consumers can't actually buy directly it has an unusually high public profile. That's because marketing has always been an integral part of its DNA.
Intel was one of the first tech developers to explore what became known as "ingredient branding" aimed at consumers as well as to the industry that actually buys its products. First, there were the "Red X" press ads of the late 1980s; then "Intel Inside" co-marketing with PC manufacturers from the early 1990s; the "Bunny People" ads - offering laboratory clean-suits as a fashion statement - later the same decade; and of course the ubiquitous Intel "bong" first introduced in 1994. That musical theme was conceived by Austrian electronica composer Walter Werzowa after singing the words "Intel Inside" to himself over and over again.
However, few of Intel's campaigns caused as much of a stir or have inspired as much affection as the 'Sponsors of Tomorrow' campaign launched by then-CMO Deborah Conrad in 2009. The idea was not just to show how Intel's innovations had changed and were still changing everyday life, but also give a human face to the technology, arguably for the first time.
Intel had by that point reached an all-time high. Long associated with DOS and Windows-based computers, it had finally just persuaded Apple to start accepting its chips for the first time. That gave the company almost complete dominance of the computer industry. But as a result it was swamped with different chips, all with their own separate brandnames, terminologies and tech specs: the Centrinos, the multiple different Pentiums, the Core 2 Duo, the Core i7 etc etc ad infinitum. "We had become a bit of a mess," acknowledged Conrad. "We were looking for a fresh take."
Conrad called a pitch to find an agency that could offer a new approach. She found San Francisco independent Venables Bell & Partners, itself launched only a few years earlier. "Most of the world knows Intel as a huge, multi-national chipmaker," said Paul Venables, the agency's founder and co-creative director, at the time. "But the company is much more than that. The more we learned about Intel, the more we realised how narrow our perception had been. This company is forging the future in so many unfathomable ways. What a shame it is that the general consumer has no idea."
Venables Bell's approach was, by tech industry standards, entirely radical. Stop talking about the latest technological breakthrough and how it will improve your life. It's not the technology that matters, it's the people who make it. "Our approach had always been, 'We're so important to your everyday life' " said Conrad. " 'Imagine a world without Intel. Your lights would go out. The world would stop revolving.' Venables Bell said, 'You got that wrong.' "
"Their take was different than anyone else," said Nancy Bhagat, Intel's VP marketing strategies & campaigns. "They said you need to stop talking about the everyday where we're in competition with other tech companies for share of mind, and leapfrog into what makes you different and why does that matter to the future."
"We started thinking about Intel," said Venables Bell co-founder Greg Bell. "Like, 'OK, what's it like in the cafeteria when they're in there eating lunch together?' There's got to be a whole hierarchy of people in there who they admire." That eventually led to the idea 'Who is the tech industry's idea of a rock star?'. And one thing was clear - as the campaign tagline proclaimed - "Our rock stars aren't like your rock stars".
That approach caught Intel short. "We were just not accustomed to turning the attention to ourselves in that way," said Conrad. Gradually, though, the idea began to grow roots, especially after Paul Venables started acting out the scripts for the proposed commercials in person for CEO Paul Otellini and the senior management team.
One of the first possible "rock stars" identified by Venables Bell, was Ajay Bhatt, the Intel staffer who led the invention of the Universal Serial Bus, better known to you and I as the USB port. It's one of those components with which every computer user is intimately familiar, but probably no one had ever taken the time to wonder who came up with the idea.
“My wife said, ‘Take your name off this, are you crazy? This is not you!’” said Bhatt. “But I decided to trust Deborah Conrad. Quite frankly, my answer was: You guys do this. I'm sure you'll do the right thing." However playing himself in an ad was a little outside Bhatt's skill set. "Several of the engineers we're personifying confided that acting isn't within their comfort zone," agreed Sandra Lopez, Intel's global consumer marketing manager. "Their focus is on winning patents, not Clios." For the sake of comic timing, actor Sunil Narkar was cast in the role, and totally nailed it.
Even now, almost a decade later, the campaign is still a delight, one of the few that gave everyday human depth to what had previously been a entirely faceless industry. (It even, in its closing seconds, gave a human face to that ever-familiar Intel bong). Within Intel, too, it inspired immense pride. "I've worked on many campaigns over many years," said Intel's VP creative services and digital marketing Johan Jervoe a few years later, "but I've never seen any campaign inspire such a passion and pride internally than this campaign."