Selling the Brand

I.C. Angles Communications Post…

Branding an organization, or in the case of my work with Molecular Imprints rebranding a company, can deliver important benefits. A new logo, visual style guide and website are a nice start, but particularly for deep technology, business-to-business companies that’s not even close to enough. A new brand needs to match new messaging and positioning, which are then integrated with communications outreach, in order to reshape how influencers, customers and potential partners view a company. In the case of Molecular Imprints, comprehensive rebranding helped position the company for an important customer deal and the ultimate acquisition of its semiconductor business unit by a partner in that deal and one of Japan’s leading companies, Canon.

Heading into 2009, Molecular Imprints faced some big perceptual hurdles. The company was synonymous with imprint lithography technology and making a big bet on the technology finding acceptance in semiconductor manufacturing. There were enormous perceptual, as well as technical hurdles standing in the way. The semiconductor industry is risk averse and understandably reluctant to commit to new, unproven technologies in its multi-billion dollar production facilities. Despite steeply rising costs, optical lithography technologies could be advanced with expensive multiple patterning processes. Furthermore, the industry had already committed enormous sums of money to a next generation light-based technology, extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography.

Although EUV kept getting pushed out and hitting delays, convincing the industry EUV wasn’t going to be ready anytime soon, wouldn’t by itself translate into imprint lithography acceptance by industry decision makers. To them, imprint lithography was simply an unsuitable technology used in less sophisticated markets. This was what many thought when they heard the name, Molecular Imprints. Truthfully, the technology was unproven in the semiconductor industry and lithography represented the most technically challenging process step in the most complex and expensive mass production processes the world had ever seen. What is more, the company had no real track record of serving the semiconductor industry.

MII_Logo1

So, we needed to change how people viewed Molecular Imprints and its technology. First, we needed to differentiate our brand of imprint lithography and we settled on and trademarked Jet and Flash Imprint Lithography or J-FIL, in order to highlight how our proprietary resist jetting technology selectively applied low viscosity resists to match given design patterns. This differentiated the company’s imprint lithography from other cruder approaches more akin to simply stamping a design, as represented by the logo at that time. We identified the technology attributes that we wanted to become synonymous with our brand, in order to move us away from an image of a risky, crude technology to being associated with a safe technology precisely applying liquid, low viscosity resists. So, out went the old color scheme and logo with black and hot red that could connote danger and in its place came a safe, liquid blue logo highlighting precision pattern applications, along with its related, basic style guide.

MIIlogo1

We had a new name for our technology in J-FIL that highlighted how it was different and better suited for the industry, as well as new design elements, which we now leveraged for a website redesign. But the most important element was our positioning, which those design elements would support. Furthermore, my research of those within and outside the company, revealed an enormous perceptual challenge we needed to overcome. Molecular Imprints was trying to convince the semiconductor industry, its technology was the best candidate for a next-generation lithography (NGL) solution. But the fact was that there was no clear roadmap for using it in the production of the industry’s most complicated logic chip designs. Based on the technical merits of J-FIL, there just didn’t seem to be a way to win the industry lithography debate. So, we needed to change the terms of the debate to one we could win.

I created messaging and worked with my colleagues to develop a campaign, including a technical presentation, around the bifurcation of the semiconductor lithography market. Just because the industry had used the same lithography technology for logic and memory devices, didn’t mean it had to do so going forward. We showed how J-FIL possessed a compelling cost-of-ownership (CoO) advantage and was uniquely suited for memory manufacturers. Memory companies were actually driving the industry in shrinking design dimensions, had greater defectivity tolerances and were facing greater cost pressures around their relatively low ASP products. They have a very different business model and in some ways technology needs than a company, like Intel. Arguing that J-FIL would work for all devices, including logic was unconvincing. Arguing that it was uniquely suitable for memory manufacturers to deploy on critical layers was both compelling and credible, because the technical and economic requirements of memory devices better fit the CoO and performance attributes of J-FIL.

We launched our new brand and supporting campaign, speaking with influencers in our key regions, including Korea and Japan, as well as reaching out to them at key tradeshows and conferences, like the SPIE Lithography Conference and SEMICON West. With improving buzz and positive coverage, we successfully moved the industry conversation in 2009 from a logic-centric discussion that was disadvantageous for imprint lithography, to people discussing a possible bifurcation of the future lithography market, with the industry adopting J-FIL in cost-sensitive, defect-tolerant memory applications. We went on to successfully conclude a partnership with Canon and a major, undisclosed, memory manufacturer, during the year. With that deal concluded, Molecular Imprints got a lot quieter about what it was doing in the market. However, in 2014 Canon announced its acquisition of Molecular Imprints semiconductor business unit explicitly for leveraging in future semiconductor memory production.

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