It seems that for every few "persons of interest" Kim Kardashian is seen with, Ariba comes up with a new corporate umbrella from which to dangle its overall company and product positioning. Fortunately, we all know the results that good P2P provides can long outlast the run of a typical reality TV show -- or the love interests of someone on it. For Ariba, not so long ago it was "Spend Management" (the Nick Lackey and Reggie Bush years for Kim). Then it became the "Commerce Cloud" (moving onto Miles Austin and a short-lived and long-paid jaunt with Kris Humphries). As of yesterday, it's "Enterprise Networks" or "Business Commerce Networks" (Kanye?!).
Alas, for the largest pure-play provider in a sector, swapping positioning has broader implications for how the market perceives software that addresses core business processes than it might first appear on the surface. Consider Ariba's latest positioning or boilerplate from April 2012: "Ariba, Inc. is the world's business commerce network. Ariba combines industry-leading cloud-based applications with the world's largest web-based trading community to help companies discover and collaborate with a global network of partners. Using the Ariba Network (tm), businesses of all sizes can connect to their trading partners anywhere, at any time from any application or device to buy, sell and manage their cash more efficiently and effectively than ever before. Companies around the world use the Ariba Network to simplify inter-enterprise commerce and enhance the results that they deliver."
Now take a step back. Here's how Ariba described itself just two months ago: "Ariba, Inc. is the leading provider of collaborative business commerce solutions. Ariba combines industry-leading technology with the world's largest web-based trading community to help companies discover, connect and collaborate with a global network of partners -- all in a cloud-based environment. Using the Ariba Commerce Cloud (tm), businesses of all sizes can buy, sell and manage cash more efficiently and effectively. Over 730,000 companies around the globe use the Ariba Commerce Cloud to simplify inter-enterprise commerce and enhance results...visit: www.ariba.com/commercecloud/" (editor's note: this link already redirects to www.ariba.com/networked-economy)
What's happened in this timeframe for Ariba? They've buried the cloud, for one. And we say good riddance (we were critical of this positioning from day one, which certainly didn't make us any friends at Ariba) because no one in procurement, AP, or treasury gave two figs about it. The idea of positioning what Ariba does as serving as a type of business or enterprise network makes more sense on the surface, even though at the end of the day, Ariba is really about two key things: purchase-to-pay automation and capability on the buy-side and supplier enablement on the sell-side.
Getting back to the updated positioning approach, five phrases stand out to us:
1) "World's business commerce network"
2) "Largest web-based trading community"
3) "Connect to their trading partners"
4) "Buy, sell and manage their cash"
5) "Simplify inter-enterprise commerce"
Some of these (e.g., "web-based trading community") send us back to the B2B marketplace era. Consider this description of a former Ariba competitor from 2000: "Through its products, portals and services, XYZ creates access to worldwide markets, allowing anyone to buy from anyone, any time, anywhere. The XYZ Global Trading Web is the world's largest business-to-business trading community. Comprised of many open e-marketplaces, the Global Trading Web provides unprecedented economies of scale for buying organizations, suppliers and service providers worldwide."
Ariba in 2000? Close ... it was Commerce One. This was Ariba at the time (1999, to be specific): "Ariba, Inc. is the world's leader in business-to-business electronic commerce services and software. The company provides the Ariba Network platform, the industry's leading open, unified global platform for business-to-business commerce on the Internet. Ariba's software and services leverage the Ariba Network platform to automate and integrate the internal and external commerce processes of buyers, suppliers, and value-added service providers, delivering a global eCommerce infrastructure that provides cost saving and revenue opportunities for businesses of all sizes."
My, how history comes close to repeating itself sometimes (at least from a marketing perspective). Yet what's missing from the new "old" description is any actual tag signifying what Ariba does on a functional basis (i.e., serving procurement, P2P, accounts payable and treasury-specific needs). Still, one could argue, the new positioning reflects the essence of what they're up to -- and what their competitors are up to -- on slightly more grounded level than the "cloud" ever did. Borrowing from a recent Ariba whitepaper to explore the evolution of how they currently position P2P and supplier networks, the explanation goes further: "The networked economy is all about relevant connections and efficient collaboration. It's the glue that links and coordinates a virtual 'extraprise' of partners into a shared community executing improved and co-ordinated processes in a more informed way than in the past. Traditional operating models, old-school enterprise applications, and proprietary point-to-point or hub-and-spoke integration strategies are too rigid to enable such transparency and efficiency across the value chain." Virtual 'extraprise'? Put the check in the mail to former FreeMarkets CTO Bill Blair for that one (who started Co-Exprise after leaving).
The positioning continues (and goes deeper) however: "These outdated approaches carry high costs and require heavy lifting to enable and support, excluding many partners from participating. In short, these traditional models prevent companies from gaining the transparency and capability they need to execute processes across the value chain -- from finding and serving new customers to organizing and managing supply to optimizing cash flow -- in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible...Companies today are moving beyond their traditionally inside-out view of the world and IT infrastructure and are no longer focused on features and functionality when it comes to technology. What they want is access to the people, processes and tools they need to make their businesses go. They want to be able to buy, sell, and manage their cash as easily in their business lives as they do on the homefront. They want business networks."
Whether this positioning is a throw back to the old Commerce One, VerticalNet and Tradex days is open to interpretation. Decide for yourself: for a more in-depth look at this new positioning, you can read Ariba's whitepaper in article format here. If you check it out, you'll see the only real direct vestige of the recent cloud shtick is the continued comparison to Google, Amazon, etc. In short, the new stuff is better in our book, even if it marks the beginning of a "back to the future" move (queue a Delorean entering on stage left). Alas, perhaps if Ariba is still independent by 2015, they'll just call the sector what it is: procurement. And Kim Kardashian may just finally end up with the man of her dreams then, too (even if both parties work their way through another one or two sector rebrands and beaus in between):