Existing on the edge with Cisco

Whatever one may think of the technology Cisco sells, few would argue against the company’s success as a marketing machine. Stories abound in the industry about Cisco “bringing in the big guns” to sway customer executives back to Cisco after a wayward network architect recommended the competition. And, for that competition, trying to make progress against Cisco often has been as productive as trench warfare in World War I. But that might be changing.

“Introducing Cisco plus.” So began a three-quarter-page ad in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal. As I scanned the top of the ad, the expected keywords were all there: “intelligence,” “optimizes applications,” “security,” all above the fold, as they say in newspaper parlance. It was only after I flipped the paper over that I realized it was a 3Com advertisement. Time to stop and rewind. What is going on here? Did Cisco acquire 3Com and I didn’t notice? In fact, it appears to be a bold example of what I’m starting to call the “Friends of Cisco” competitive strategy. And 3Com isn’t the only one to adopt this approach of “leverage Cisco by buying from us.” You’ll be seeing it pop up more and more from other vendors.

After the boldface Cisco opening, 3Com goes on to tout what it calls its “plus” approach — adding intelligence and more (noted above) to an existing Cisco infrastructure. Then, just below the fold, 3Com tells you what you “lose” by going with 3Com: “Minus the forklift. Minus the lock-in.” The ad ends in not-so-fine print: “Cisco…is not affiliated with nor does it endorse the products or services of 3Com Corp. Whoa! Big surprise. So, yes, we do compete with Cisco, but we also exist with them as an overlay to your current network.” And, yes, the “Whoa! Big surprise” is 3Com’s text and not an editorial addition.

To go back to the trench warfare analogy, it’s as if, rather than flying the white flag in surrender, one side just stood up and said, “Hey, why are we fighting? Let’s go have lunch,” and then uses that as a way to get over to the enemy in order to get access to areas behind the battle lines.

Beneath its logo, 3Com lists “security, VoIP, wireless, switching, routing, services” as areas with which it can help customers. Whoa! (this time it’s mine) — Cisco has offerings in every one of these areas too. The message would seem to be: “Cisco: We come in peace…to try to take your business away.” It might just work.

(Disclaimer: While 3Com is a testing client of The Tolly Group, we do not provide consulting to the company. I first found out about this strategy when I picked up the WSJ and saw the advertisement. The Tolly Group had no connection with this effort.)

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–Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Boca Raton, Fla. He can be reached atktolly@tolly.com.

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