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After years of paying lip service to the importance of marketing while engineering and design ruled the roost, technology companies are learning that maybe they need to be more like other businesses after all.

The "build it and they will buy" mentality that once prevailed is rapidly falling by the wayside as tech products become less differentiated and increasingly commoditized, with price often serving as a key driver of customer behavior. Customers are better informed than ever and can afford to be choosy.

As a result, the tech sector is finding a need for marketing to take a more central role that goes well beyond marketing communications. Instead, marketing's charge is to forge a better understanding of customers, what makes them tick, what ticks them off, and how it all combines to shape offers that solidify their relationship with the brand—and, not so coincidentally, to contribute to financial performance.

Microsoft is one tech leader that's grabbing a lot of attention for its shift in this direction. Since 2002, it has increased its dependence on marketing's understanding of customers' wants, needs, capabilities, pricing sensibilities, and expectations to help steer development of relevant products.

But this thrust toward greater customer-centricity doesn't necessarily come naturally. There's a tendency toward, well, arrogance that can cause even the brightest lights in this new environment to flicker.

Consider Apple. It's a fruit you can't avoid polishing these days, considering its phenomenal success at establishing itself as not just a tech mover and shaker but also an all-round innovative lifestyle brand.

Using its long-standing reputation for its user-friendly computers and operating system, with its culture-changing iPod/iTunes offerings as key planks to its platform, Apple has worked to extend its consumer franchise through vehicles such as the consistently packed Apple stores.

The buzz has helped it achieve consistent gains in brand equity value—up 16% to nearly $8 billion in 2005, making it one of last year's big winners in Business Week's annual survey of best global brands. More recently, Apple was identified as the most influential global brand in a survey by online magazine BrandChannel.

But.

Even the strongest brands—in any space—can come undone if they don't follow the fundamentals. And for all that Apple has done right, it's also taken some missteps: The furor over Apple's perceived non-responsiveness to iPod's limited shelf-life thanks to a battery that died after 18 months, replaceable only by one carrying a price tag almost equal to that of an entirely new device (a problem since rectified after a class-action lawsuit); the furor over the iPod's easily damaged casing (also rectified); the ongoing grumbling over long waits and uneven customer service at the Apple stores, with many complaints of a shortage of true geniuses manning the Genius Bars.

Apple, for all it's done right and wrong, provides a lesson for others in a tech world that's learning to embrace a customer focus: A brand is built from the inside out as a function of deeds, not words. All the cool advertising, sleek designs, and engineering miracles will not count for much if each customer touchpoint—before, during, and after the sale—isn't consistently upholding everything that goes into what the brand is intended to represent.

Customer service must be the mantra in this brave new world. Problem-resolution is a "make it or break it" brand-building moment, particularly in an era when individuals who may have a negative experience find it easy share the word with the world in a nanosecond via blogs, message boards, and other consumer-generated media.

Apple, and others in this space, must ensure that its customer-centric approach permeates all of its customer interactions, lest it face a different type of revolution altogether—this one led by its customers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Davis is a senior partner of Prophet (www.prophet.com), a consulting firm specializing in the integration of brand, business, and marketing strategies. He can be reached at sdavis@prophet.com.