Nike uses its raft of top-level sports names to promote the swoosh in all forms of media and is pushing hard for its customers' tweets and Facebook posts. It produces social media content for each of the major sports product categories like basketball, football and soccer, with each having its own site with relevant content. Does that all make Nike a technology company? Perhaps not, but its technology strategy gives it an edge over low-tech competitors, Swinand says. In a sign of its growing tech chops, a top Nike designer was recently poached by Apple.
Swinand says Nike's technology investments may not show up directly in sales figures, but they add to the company's brand advantage and customer stickiness, borrowing another high-tech buzzword. Its ability to mine the value of the brand recognition makes Nike stock attractive despite its pricey 25 times earnings present value, he says.
Johnson Controls. An old-line Rust Belt company once known for making building temperature gauges and car seats is now the leader in new car technology. It produces a wide range of fuel-efficiency products and is a main supplier of hybrid car batteries and control panels that monitor fuel use and manage the car's stability to limit fuel consumption. The seats it makes now for cars can shift weight automatically for fuel efficiency and comfort. It makes "infotainment" devices and control panels, and a wide range of electronic components for "smart car" interiors and enhanced performance. It's the focus on the environment – both in terms of reduced fossil fuel consumption and cleaner emissions – that makes it a favorite of Calvert Investments, which is focused on socially conscious investment.
Johnson Controls is also a Wall Street favorite as carmakers prepare to lift fleet-wide fuel ratings to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 under a U.S. mandate. "Johnson has retooled as a technology company and is now the go-to place for the highest-quality energy efficiency products and technology for the auto industry and buildings," Henson says.
Pure Technologies. Many investors haven't heard of this small technology company, but it plans to make a big name for itself by transforming decaying infrastructure with proprietary technology in water and other key areas. Calvert's Henson says the company's sound-sensing devices can measure the integrity of structures, including bridges and pipelines. Its tools monitor water and oil pipeline flows to avoid leaks, pollution and other potential threats. Pure Technologies makes many products aimed at repairing existing bridges and pipelines, which makes it a more compelling stock in a low-budget era for government.
Amazon. Amazon makes this list because it has transformed itself from a simple online retailer into a cutting-edge tech company, avoiding the fate of Alta Vista, Webvan and a host of other Internet also-rans, Pachter says. He considers Amazon an "excellent long-term buy," although he rates it "neutral" right now based on its present share price. It's a leader in cloud computer and data-mining services that were byproducts of the firm's "delivering people what they want" ethos. Also, while The Washington Post may be a personal investment of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, his company continues to bet big in the digital device market with the Kindle, still the leading e-reader and a player in the tablet world. Digital products and e-books, including titles from Amazon's own book publishing division, are starting to generate significant sales.
When does a low-tech company become a high-tech company? That's hard to answer. But like Amazon, smart companies adopt technology to serve customers more efficiently and quickly.
"Companies have to keep themselves and their brands relevant, and new technology is a way to do it," Pachter says. "You have to keep reinventing yourself or you die."