Thursday, 18 September 2008

That Microsoft brand thing...

I have been meaning to write an article about the new ads from Microsoft, you know the ones – with Bill (Gates) and Jerry (Seinfeld). I had developed a theory about just what Microsoft might be up to, but before I could put the proverbial finger to keyboard, the interweb became awash with rumours that the ads have been pulled, or have possibly ‘done their job’ – depending on the spin you believe.

For those of you who haven’t heard about them (where have you been?), or seen them – here they are (assuming youtube continues to show them that is).

So what was Microsoft up to?

Well before I go too far, I have to express an interest in Microsoft, having just worked on an assignment to help rebrand most of the advertising revenue generating businesses within Microsoft – snappily called Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions (MDAS for short) into – wait for it – Microsoft Advertising.

Now I know you may think that job didn’t need a whole heap of consultancy thinking, but as I like to think – great brand ideas in hindsight should always look kinda inevitable. The fact was that working with Microsoft was a delight – and that they really do have more big brains than you can shake a stick at, but unfortunately they are mostly huge brains that would rather focus on technology and products and functions and ‘neat stuff’ than branding – so this is where we came in.

So, far far away on another Microsoft planet (it really does feel that big) some big Microsoft brains have been pondering the ‘b’ word (brand – keep up), and why they aren’t the most loved brand on earth, as they rather feel they should be.

For 25 years they have increasingly dominated the I.T. world – particularly with those two huge cash cows, Windows and Office, but somehow their enormous portfolio of industry dominating products and services still doesn’t seem to add up to a great brand – why not?

Well, like most brand problems, the answer is incredibly simple, and incredibly complicated all at the same time. For why?

Microsoft is a very very complicated company (however hard it tries to simplify it’s organisational structure), with some very complicated products, services and propositions. It has a vast workforce of smart people coming up with smart things – and mostly what Microsoft loves best is coming up with more and more new smart things.

I have to admit I have sat through more than one meeting at Microsoft where I hadn’t the least idea what they were talking about (but hey, I am a brand consultant), and as I have already said – Microsoft is an awfully big and complicated place.

On the other hand, you have a company like Apple, that has been socking it to Microsoft on a daily basis for the last few years with their ‘Get a Mac’ campaign – you know the one – ‘Hi, I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC’ (I’ve included a few just for fun – see below).

Obviously Apple aren’t the only competitor, but for brevity lets stick with them.

I may be an aknowledged Mac fanboy, but even the most diehard Microsoft fanatic has to admit that Apple have successfully positioned themselves through this campaign at the expense of Microsoft, and we have heard barely a peep from Microsoft in defense.

Apple want their brand to stand for simplicity and elegance, with a hip and stylish panache, because they truly feel that the purpose of their products is to be simple and elegant – ‘they just work’. Their vision is delivered through the customer experience, and they are fanatical about every aspect of the experience – user interface, visual identity, websites, products, they all seem to be guided and created by one hand (and we all know who – right?).

The fact is Apple probably has the single most well managed branding programme on the planet – and it shows. They clearly pay top dollar for design talent, but what most impresses is the sheer attention to detail – it ALL looks so consistent – not in a uniform, dull and boring way, but in a beautiful, stylish cool looking way. And make no mistake – this cost a lot. But it works.

Alas Microsoft just doesn’t have such a well connected vision to experience. In fact Microsoft seems to think what it does is just too diverse to have any singular visionary idea that can be translated through a consistent brand building experience.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of really smart branding people within Microsoft, but the empire is just so large, so very VERY large, that very few people get a sufficient overview to draw a sufficiently singular and collectivising vision together, and the organisation doesn’t have the will or the discipline to deliver a consistent and desirable customer experience.

Microsoft is run much more as a business than a brand, so where all decisions within Apple feel like they have come personally from the hand of Steve, the decisions passing up and down the layers of management in Microsoft just don’t appear to have any cohesiveness – and that’s assuming you actually understand what most of the guys are talking about, because from my very limited experience and perspective, the one thing Microsoft really seem to enjoy is complexity.

And so this is where I think the super smart guys from Crispin Porter & Bogusky came in – the hottest advertising agency on the planet – and tasked (or challenged – you choose) to come up with an advertising campaign that will help to reposition Microsoft (and most likely create a repost to the Get a Mac campaign) with some sort of coherent Microsoft vision.

Crispin Porter & Bogusky have made a reputation creating smart, funny, insightful and effective advertising (and like all advertising guys – they all use Macs! But like a challenge) and the feeling is, if they can’t do it, nobody can.

But what is that singular vision, and how to coalesce it into a 30 second advertisement. We all know advertising on it’s own won’t solve the vision thing (right guys?), but I’m sure the Microsoft troops and their friends would at least like something to make them feel better about being at Microsoft.

So what was the big idea (at least so far…..?) because much of the commentary (and there has been lots) in the blogosphere has been along the lines of ‘what is this about?’

Well, for what it’s worth, here is my view on what the advertising is all about….

Apple is cool – the ads are cool, the products are cool, Steve J is cool.

Microsoft is not cool, the products are not cool, and Bill G (and Steve B, especially Steve B) are not cool.


Apple is kinda smug. And PC (John Hodgman in the Get a Mac ads) is kinda sweet in a not cool way. And whilst Microsoft is not cool, it is useful, and it is successful, and and (take care now – hold back the Microsoft instinct for world domination) it creates some useful products which – ahem – mostly work.


Lets portray Microsoft (ie use Bill – because he IS Microsoft – and incidentally, who knew he could be so funny?) as a personality living in a dreamworld of hyper normality – Shoe Circus, Grannies that mow the lawn – ie create a rich everyman world where Bill (Microsoft) is part of – a world where Apple wouldn’t fit in, because it is just too cool and elitist.

Microsoft is anti-cool, just like the rest of us. And by making Microsoft just like the rest of us, they mis-position Apple as an outsider.

So if Microsoft is more like us (warts and all) then we are going to feel better about them, and feel more and more that somehow Apple are just too smart, too slick, too….. unlikeable.

Of course, to follow through with this strategy, Microsoft would have to build that sense of ‘us together in un-coolness’ into something wide and deep, and then drive it into the muscle of the business.

It could be a brand that reflects what we are actually like – ordinary, funny, kind, quirky – and it could help us do the things we really need to get done, and the things we actually want to get done. It could be our friend, someone you would have a beer with (not just a Starbucks), someone you would welcome into your home without worrying about how tidy your house is or whether they will hit on your wife or daughter.

But as I have said, they just don’t have the instinct, will or discipline to collectivise that vision into a consistent customer experience. And more significantly, I don’t think many of the senior executives will want to jump on the ‘us together in un-coolness’ bandwaggon. You need great discipline to subvert your own instincts for the greater good of the brand vision.

It’s a size thing, but it’s also a culture thing, and in the end I’m not sure Microsoft really have a culture that understands or accepts the basic principles of singular visions and connected collectivised customer experiences.

But hey – it makes a gazzillion dollars a second and has bred more millionaires than any other company. So who knows what will be the next move on brand Microsoft – I for one am looking forward to what Crispin Porter & Bogusky do next, and three cheers to Steve Balmer for giving them the chance…