Rethinking tech marketing

First published in Fairfax Unlimited 20 May 2014.

I’m an active tech user, lover of gadgets and nothing makes me happier than having all my Apple products synchronized to perfection.

Apart from a spectacularly awful semester of Computer Science at Auckland University, I’ve never had any programming ability whatsoever. In fact, my one Bill Gates moment will be the memory of the button I built in Pascal that blinked on and off. It was something to behold.

My bemused classmates, who are probably all tech millionaires by now, well, their buttons had rows of coloured lights flashing in time to the Death Star theme. I really had no talent at computer science and rightly moseyed on back to the Literature department.

So, it’s with genuine respect and a bit of awe when I meet a technology company that has created something of significance. Right now, I’m having a bit of a Vend moment.

Australia, like New Zealand, has an active tech scene. There’s always a technology company featured in the Australian press, either seeking investment, gaining investment or selling out for a small fortune. Along with those going bust.

Last week, NZTE in Melbourne played host to digital Kiwi companies in the payments and retail sectors. We watched a video introducing a handful of companies, we met the founders. It was all appropriately held at the York Street Butter Factory, a tech hub in the city.

From my experience here on the marketing side, many techs get it very wrong by assuming people are excited by the complexity of their platforms. Their marketing is technical, their conversation is littered with jargon and their branding is as exciting as reading a washing machine manual.

Unbeknownst to them, no one (apart from the programmers in the IT department) is interested in that level of detail. However, everyone is interested in the simple story behind what your complex idea actually does.

The beauty of Vend is not only in its cloud-based point of sale system, which I have no doubt is improving retail businesses the world over. (Numerous video testimonials on their website seem to back this up.)

The cleverness is in how they’re building their business by creating a very memorable and distinct brand.

There are companies far more mature in their life cycle that I think dream of having Vend’s momentum right now.

At New Zealand’s Hi-Tech Awards last week, Vend won the Cisco Hi-Tech Emerging Company of the Year Award, and, for the second year running, the IBM Hi-Tech Exporter of the Year Award. And they’re attracting attention not only in Australia and New Zealand, but around the world.

I often write about New Zealand companies using the Kiwi positioning to their detriment in Australia. Australians are just not that into us.

Vend is not pushing itself as the great Kiwi software company. In fact they say upfront that yes, although they’re originally from New Zealand, more importantly they now do business in North America, Australia and Europe.

They hire local people. They seek out local investors and partners. People like Paul Bassat, one of the team behind Australia’s more discerning venture firms, Square Peg Capital. They use quirky tactics to reinforce their irreverent (yet solid) positioning. They smash cash registers, which may seem silly, but it’s all part of the Vend personality. They’ve adopted a very bright and kind of daggy green, which they’ve rolled out everywhere.

Along with founder Vaughan Rowsell (whose moustache is also part of the brand), I have to give two thumbs up to Vend’s Head of Marketing, Nick Houldsworth.

Unlike far too many technology companies, Vend knows how to generate excitement around its product and build a brand people remember. It will no doubt help sales and, equally as important, it will attract likeminded people to work for them.