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Supergate Lenovo: How and why does that even happen?

Supergate Lenovo: How and why does that even happen? Kevin Ryan
Lenovo has officially gone into the tech betrayal record books with "Supergate." "Or is it fish bait?" If you have no idea what I'm talking about (not to get into it), I'm referring to the recent "discovery" that some adware (aka, pushware, bloatware, or -- in some circles -- malware) disguised as a utility was preloaded on Lenovo machines as of fall 2014 and early 2015.

Unbeknownst to and much to the chagrin of many Lenovo customers, the story took a turn for the OMFG when said prepackaged software was also determined to be a security risk. Then (and only then) we started to see Lenovo head in the "oops, we're sorry" direction.

Let's face it: In what world does anyone who has been working in marketing in the last 15 years look at a utility that might be construed as malware and think, "Well, that's a good idea. What could possibly go wrong?"

If you don't know what adware is, you shouldn't be anywhere near a digital marketing strategy. Yet for some reason -- and this is just an educated guess -- I really don't think marketing was anywhere near this one. Well, until the crisis people were called in anyway.

The bloat problem and history repeats itself

Software bloat is always couched on the value add proposition, and PC manufacturers are notorious for loading up new machines with resource draining software. Manufacturers have been dealing with downward pricing pressure for quite some time. and they have to protect their revenue at all costs. It's gotten so bad that many people just wipe their new machines as part of their unboxing ritual.

Speaking of protecting revenue at all costs, if any of this sounds familiar, the "déjà haven't we been here before" factor is really high with Supergate. Does the Sony BMG rootkit scandal sound at all familiar? That was almost was 10 years ago, and the rollout should be pretty familiar:

  1. Ambiguous foreshadowing statement from IT honcho.

  2. Blogger breaks the story.

  3. People complain loudly.

  4. Simultaneous apology and declaration of innocent intent.

  5. Lawsuits, settlements, and we all went back to buying Sony products.

Think I'm exaggerating? Go ahead and read the Sony story. Click on the "rootkit link." Go ahead. I'll wait. Take your time.


The social factor

Wasn't that interesting? The main difference between Supergate and Rootkit was the timeline. Supergate has only taken months, not years to unfold. Of course, lawsuit outcomes are unlikely to be accelerated by social influences, but since the news and outrage cycle has shortened to about 30 seconds in the past 10 years, Supergate social outrage is already winding down.

Due to its short life and high frequency, it's fair to say social media is the gift that just keeps on giving. The cycle is simple: Get upset, initiate social outrage, and 30 seconds later, go back to watching panda bears make poopy noises until you find something else to get upset about. The social universe is desperate for a cause, and corporate America delivers a new one almost daily.

Five years later, the lawyers behind the class action suits get a big fat payout, and everyone that bought an "infected" computer gets a check for 25 cents in the mail. By then, no one can remember why.

Disinfected communication wins

Here's how stuff like this happens. And will continue to happen. It's another simple and easy to understand problem: a classic example of the right hand having no idea what the left hand is doing.

Let's see if the following hypothetical (and in no way related to this situation) scenario makes sense. Tech thinks it's protecting revenue and adding margin. Since no one deemed informing marketing a priority, the exciting new technology that affords a better [insert user experience here] with a great pitch deck, solid Silicon Valley funding, and a little industry press gets bundled into your product, and your brand equity is temporarily (or permanently, depending how far you push it) tarnished.

Another plausible hypothetical is that marketing knew all about it and fell in love with the pitch deck and promises. Technologies like [insert cute name] are pitched and added using only hype and short-term revenue projections with total disregard for the brand or any long-term equity (if that concept is still valid) it may represent.

Silicon Valley tech is notorious for never asking if one should do something, only if it can be done. As long as the lawyers haven't told them not to, that's a green light. Ironically, they all claim to be revolutionizing everything and making the world a better place. Just ask them. Watch this 1:30 parody. You won't be sorry, and yes, it's really like that.

Second intermission…

See what I mean?

One of the many things I would have done differently in this situation is apologize faster and deeper. Only after a third party pointed out security concerns did Lenovo own up the situation. In all the social outrage and pundit fodder, the marketing folks are nowhere to be found. Other than not offering a dedicated support line (as opposed to publishing "how to" documents), the biggest gaff in this situation lies in letting the tech guys talk to the press. The story ended up sounding like it was being told by a Gomer Pyle cyborg. The "we only check our own software" (not third parties) followed closely by the "surprise surprise" defense will ultimately suffice; it's just sad that so many brands are striving for "suffice."

No sir, the only action that will facilitate change is a measureable loss in revenue. And since 30 seconds of social outrage doesn't seem to be able to do it, we can expect a lot more of these. For now, since the consuming public also seems to be happy to buy a hammer spitting out ads for nails, don't expect change any time soon.

Post script

As I sit here typing away on my Lenovo X1 Carbon, am I going to be one of those people who says, "I'll never buy another Lenovo product"? Nah, I already did that with Apple, and I'm tired of inconveniencing and limiting my own options as a result of getting shafted by a company. People say I should do that with Uber, but those same people are riding in yellow cabs that smell like an ash tray at the bottom of a trash bin. And I'm also tired of inconveniencing myself in a protest that nets out zero change for the consuming public.

I will continue to buy Lenovo machines because I like them. They are tough as nails, they put up with tons of abuse, and they work. The business machines are fast and consistently innovative. I have yet to be disappointed with a Lenovo machine. I'm willing to deal with tidying up the machine when I buy it, which brings me to my final thought: If anyone with half a brain (like me) can and will remove your bloatware, should you change the value proposition accordingly?

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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