Brands that bind…and when they slide

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My little world has been a Microsoft shop for a very long time. It’s a decision I made in the early days when forced to choose between an Apple or a PC. If I wanted to live in a world of third party innovation, the choice was clear. The PC decision helped make another decision. For unsophisticated users, there was one operating system and its name was Microsoft. And this decision helped make yet another decision: the M/S Office Suite…my version of “keep it simple, stupid.” Like the millions of people who shot the rapids of this “decision cascade,” I was now a Microsoft man.

There were plenty of irritations with life with Microsoft. I am still astonished how bad PowerPoint is from a design point of view. With these multiples, Microsoft could have hired Louise Fili or Milton Glazer, and the virtual world of the corporation would now be vastly more visual. Actually, because form is content, America would now actually be vastly more conceptual. But, no. The PowerPoint templates were clearly designed by that special someone who did Travelodge napkins and match books in the1960s. Talk about a difference that makes a difference! Talk about critical path dependency! PowerPoint reproduced Microsoft’s limitations, and helped to install them in the American mind.

Still, PowerPoint was an improvement on the Lotus equivalent. I forget what this was called but it was so utterly unpredictable that I discovered belatedly that presentations would not be forthcoming unless you got a group of people to lay their hands on the printer and chant in Latin. (This was not in the manual, unless it was cunningly secreted there in invisible ink, perhaps on the page that read ‘this page left deliberately blank.”)

Anyhow, to use the language of marketing, Microsoft was producing enough value that I was inclined to stick with it. And this despite the fact that the value was unsecured by robust brand meaning. There would be moments I would imagine that I knew what “Microsoft” was, and on these occasions I was almost certainly conflating the brand and its founder. Both the man and the brand were, I supposed, miraculously smart, competitive, a little cranky, pugnacious, unforgiving. Microsoft didn’t want me to love it. It was too smart, too aggressive for that. But it expected me to be smart enough to see that it was the power and the glory, and that I had put myself in good company. But even this began to darken. Microsoft, I began to think, was now probably like the Bill of middle age: rich, complicated, and too distracted for me to grasp…or for him to act.

New programs would come and go. I noticed the rise of Linux and other competitors, but, like millions of others, I thought “close enough is good enough.” I was still a Microsoft man.

Bam! In one week, I defected twice. I left Outlook for Gmail. And I left Explorer for FireFox. The immediate cause was spam. The deeper cause: my confidence in Microsoft now had the stability of a California split level teetering on a rain soaked hill side. Yes, I heard that Bill Gates was now thoroughly steamed about spam. But even this, a direct intersession from Zeus himself, would not change things. It was too little, too late. There are “Port 25” solutions now being implemented, relatively simple ways to deal with spam. Why didn’t Gates give us “Port 25” solutions a year ago? This is what industry leaders are for. This is what really smart people do.

It’s not that I have a San Simeon view of Microsoft, that Gates and his lieutenants now wander the halls of their magnificent accomplishment but no longer fully manage or control it. Yes, it is. I think I ceased to believe that Microsoft was fully in charge of Microsoft. If it could endure a universe in which an unprotected PCs on line will be attacked by viruses once every 60 minutes (or whatever it is), than something was really kind of screwed up. And don’t tell me that Microsoft was now the captive of the third party supplier universe it had helped created. That’s what those mountainous cash reserves were for. Buy Symantec and be done with it.

The thing about innovations is that it hard to eat just one. No sooner had I abandoned Outlook and Explorer than I began to think about whether there isn’t a better word processor and spread sheet out there. And it wasn’t long before I then began to wonder whether I should sell the handful of shares I have in Microsoft. If I can throw off inertia and walk out of this brand house, there are millions poised to do the same. Indeed, Microsoft has lost market share to Mozilla for 8 straight months. Mozilla has only around 5% of the market, but it is growing at a rate of .5 to 1 per cent a month. After enduring years of put upon loyalty, the Microsoft consumer is ripe for exit.

I can’t help thinking what would have happened if the branding had been a little better. I mean what would have happened if Bill had gone out and hired a good brand man, a Sergio Zyman, for instance, while he was out hiring Milton Glaser? In the big picture, there just ain’t no telling. The little picture: I’d still be running a Microsoft shop.

References

McGann, Rob. 2005. FireFox adoption shows signs of cooling. Clickz.