Graduate: Marketing to make computers friendly

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The Independent Online
As households rush to connect to the Internet, computer manufacturers are employing more graduates to help with marketing. Stephen Pritchard finds out what they offer.

It is safe to assume that thousands of people will buy a personal computer this Christmas. Computers, and add-ons such as printers and modems, are a multi-million-pound industry, and the home market is its fastest-growing sector. Close to one in four households now owns a PC.

This has meant far-reaching changes to the way computer companies sell their products. Marketing in IT used to be about business-to-business sales, building up long-term relationships, and winning million-pound orders for machines that took up whole rooms.

Now, a computer is more likely to be sold alongside a fridge, a television set or a stereo system. In the US, for example, the computer and printer company Hewlett-Packard has just embarked on a massive branding exercise, including prime-time television advertisements. Here, the company is using hoardings to promote its colour printers as seasonal gift ideas.

Computer firms now need marketing specialists who know about consumers. Knowing about PCs is less critical. In the past, graduates looking for a career in marketing turned to companies such as Mars or Procter and Gamble; an increasing number are now looking to the computer sector.

Even household-name computer companies are relatively small, and the workforce is often young and highly skilled. Compaq, currently the market leader for desktop computers in the UK, turned over pounds 2bn last year, yet it employs just 280 people.

"Basically, Compaq is a marketing-driven company," explains Joe McNally, vice-president and managing director. Marketing supports the company's retail channels, from business suppliers to stores such as John Lewis and Dixons, as well as building the brand.

Mr McNally says a graduate at Compaq will experience several areas of marketing, including perhaps public relations, product marketing and planning an advertising campaign. "We do delegate quite a lot of responsibility to people at quite a young age," he says. The average age of staff is 29.

Lucy Wilson, a geology graduate, is a product marketing assistant on the Compaq Presario line, the company's home computer range. She organises product launches, and produces and distributes marketing literature.

The IT industry no longer deserves its teenagers-in-anoraks image, according to graduates who work there. Lucy Wilson points out that she was "a bit of a technophobe" before she started to work with computers.

Sam Marshall holds a degree in marketing, and works as a marketing assistant at Pace Micro Electronics, which makes modems for home and business markets. She confesses that she, too, "was not at all interested in IT" before joining Pace. "We are given training when new products are introduced," she says. And working for a small company helps. "Physically, we are only a few yards from the engineers who make the products, and they're very approachable."

Modems are one of this year's hot products, as households look to connect to the Internet. Pace, like other companies, is aiming at the home user, with bright packaging and straightforward sales literature.

"The person who buys a PC for home and wants to connect to the outside world may be a bank manager or a plumber," explains John Cunningham, Pace's managing director. "The box is almost the point of sale."

Ms Marshall says her work involves ever more contact with retail stores rather than large corporate IT suppliers. Pace modems are now on sale in Selfridges and Harrods. "This would have been unheard of four or five years ago," she says.

Sam Marshall's work is similar to that in any consumer goods company. She prepares product information, organises trade exhibitions, oversees advertising, and liaises with the product development team. However, she has more responsibility, and sees the results of her work more quickly, than many recent graduates would.

"I enjoy walking into Smith's and picking up a magazine and seeing a feature or advert I put together," she says.