Enterasys needs to break out of the Cabletron shell

One more time…and this time they really, really mean it.

So says the new general manager of Enterasys Canada – a one-fourth spin-off of network equipment pioneer Cabletron Corp. Once again, Cabletron – er, Enterasys – is banging the brand-awareness drum knowing it absolutely must drive recognition of both its tongue-twisting moniker and value proposition to customers.

Identity has been the greatest challenge from Day One for Enterasys since, some 18 months ago Cabletron morphed from a slow-moving infrastructure company locked in a downward spiral to the current collection of promising, but wheel-spinning, startups. New Canadian general manager Paul Johnston, whose previous stints with Digital Equipment Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. qualifies him as a fellow who certainly knows a thing or two about the network equipment industry and companies grappling with identity crisis, says Enterasys is absolutely determined this time to break out of the box and establish its brand.

Johnston adds that Enterasys will make significant investments in brand-awareness marketing and launch an aggressive partnering campaign to recruit network services resellers to bring value-added support to the Enterasys network gear.

Such lofty promises have been expressed by other well-intentioned Enterasys/Cabletron execs in the past with little result, but Johnston insists, this time it’s no guff.

There’s reason to be doubtful. Cabletron history shows a company that has not had much success with branding campaigns in the past and the company’s realignment effort has been a near disaster from a marketing perspective. Case in point – can anyone name all four Cabletron spin-offs?

Where Cabletron has succeeded in the past has been more through infamy. This is a company once known as “the bad boys of networking,” and for good reason. Recall the over-the-top “Cisco Kid” challenge of Las Vegas Networld+Interop some years back when the company’s show booth featured the bruising Cabletron Champ in a hilarious staged boxing event that saw the pummeling of wispy arch-rival Cisco Kid, a challenger who simply could not match up.

Such brazen demonstrations certainly made people aware of Cabletron, but it also made a lot of enemies. Cisco didn’t take kindly to the tongue-in-cheek mayhem in the squared circle at Interop that year, threatening at the time to break off the albeit limited co-operation both companies had.

Cabletron’s history in the resale channel shows similar brass. A popular story that has circulated in the industry for years is one told about a Canadian reseller who, after a lengthy period of negotiations, was about to put the finishing touches on a major customer deal involving a sizeable volume of Cabletron equipment. As the story goes, the engagement was grabbed as a direct Cabletron opportunity by none other than the former company head Bob Levine himself, who personally came up north to lock up the engagement and effectively lock out the reseller. It’s rumoured that the irate reseller was so livid that he dared Levine to take something of a Cisco Kid-type challenge himself to the back of the customer’s parking lot to settle the matter.

There was definitely nothing subtle about Cabletron’s marketing efforts back then. Company officials seized upon every opportunity to extol the wonders of Cabletron technology and to ‘diss the opposition.

But when the network equipment industry moved to embrace IP everywhere and voice/data/video integration, Cabletron hesitated, then lagged and ultimately lost, left in the dust of more aggressive, fast-moving competitors. After a period of stagnation and poor financial performance, Cabletron made the bold decision to completely rethink its business strategy – determined to focus on customer segments and solutions rather than products and technologies. While in retrospect, slicing the large company into four well-funded startups was the right move to make, Enterasys and the other Cabletron startups have yet to establish both their brands and value propositions to customers.

There’s reason to believe that Enterasys really means it this time. Start with the fact that Enterasys recently announced it will establish a research and development facility in Mississauga, Ont. The plan is to employ within the next 12 to 18 months upwards of 150 IT researchers culled from four Toronto-area universities. It’s a move that shows creativity, confidence in something other than American know-how and real commitment to be a meaningful player of the Canadian IT market. The fact is that most of the subsidiaries of foreign IT companies established in Canada are little more than sales and marketing operations.

Secondly, according to Johnston, Enterasys is about to embark on a significant partner recruiting campaign and will provide significant market development funds, training subsidies and other financing to assist these partners in driving towards greater success.

The fact of the matter is that Enterasys needs to get it right this time. It’s absolutely essential for the company to break out of the Cabletron shell to blaze its own networking trail or risk complete and utter failure, and gradual but eventual disappearance.

Enterasys is a unique company, established to serve the business enterprise specifically, unlike most other large scale network equipment makers who’ve clearly shifted focus to the carrier space. Theirs is a compelling story. Enterasys must be determined enough to tell it – loudly and proudly.