Brands behaving badly: Microsoft save yourself

Microsoft_ii My Microsoft migration continues. As readers of this blog know, I dumped Outlook for an online calendar, Explorer for Mozilla, Outlook for gmail and now it looks as if I just dumped Word for a Web 2.0 appliance called Writely. That leaves just Powerpoint and Exel, and I’m done.  (Yes, I know there are alternatives here too.)

The key thing: how risk averse and technologically unsophisticated I am as a consumer. If someone like me is preparing to walk away from my Microsoft suite…well, it may be time to share your shares. I did.

All marketers treat themselves as a window on the consumers’ soul. They know, or ought to know, their tolerances, and this allows them to use themselves as indicators of what is going on in the hearts and minds of millions of other consumers.

Here’s how it breaks down:

I am prepared to walk away from the brand that has been, for several decades now, my friend in need. In the early days, Microsoft seemed liked the safe bet, the necessary companion for a computer novice. Now I am prepared to go to a number of suppliers, some of them brands and companies I have never heard of. Consumers grow up and they leave the brand as surely as kids grow up and leave home.

I am also prepared to allow me software to sit on the internet. This is something I thought I would never permit. I thought I needed to control the means of production. Gmail cured me of that.

There is a small downside here. If I have my hotel info stored in Gmail, and I am checking in, it’s hard to get at. But even this naive consumer can see that internet access will shortly be completely ubiguitous and always on. I can also see that it’s going to be free. (As we all know, Google is going to give away wireless to the city of SF and, as we can guess, the city will embrace them for it. It is a way of giving wireless access to those with low or no incomes.)

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about dumping Windows but I noticed that this morning that Dell will release a computer with no operating system installed. Twelve months ago, I would have said, "weird." Now, I think, "yeah, that’s a good idea."

The installed base that Windows and Office give Microsoft an advantage every marketer dreams of. The conventional notion is that the brand is maximally sticky, the consumer substantially captive, the competition simply locked out.

But it may be that we now live in a market so dynamic that even this advantage, apparently as insurmountable as Hadrian’s wall once was, might someday crumble. Branders and other marketers will come across it in old copies of the business press years and years from now. "Microsoft?" someone will ask. "Sure," comes the reply, "they were right up there with Wang. You know, in the early days."

But here’s what’s really strange. With the world now slippery with new challenges, Microsoft continues to manage its branding as if this were not the most urgent order of business at its disposal. With everything else going to hell in a handbasket, surely it makes sense to secure the enterprise by rebranding the company. Surely, it’s time to wrestle the company away from the scrappy, argumentative, contrary spirit of Gates and the great legion of clones he has installed in the corporation.  Start again.

No, not "kinder and gentler." Just someone or something that expresses the best qualities of the world of thinking machines, virtual realities, and streaming signals: curiousity, generosity, playfulness, vitality. Geez, we may not have a "singularity" to look forward to, but grumpy, what’s-in-it-for-us small mindedness is not the stuff out of which great brands ever come. 

Microsoft is losing altitude at speed.  Branding is one of the things they can do right now.  Sure, their problems are wired into the corporate culture.  So what we have now is a certain truth in packaging.  Microsoft the brand is transperantly Microsoft the people. 

Put it this way.  The brand can speak in both directions, inside and out.  If Microsoft create a brand that speaks of curiousity, generosity, playfulness, vitality and if it then license sthese qualities inside the corporation, real transformation is possible. Perhaps it will take courage and imagination from the fact that they are no longer playing an incumbent position.  If the gridiron has taught us anything, it is that playing "safe" is usually a losing proposition.

7 thoughts on “Brands behaving badly: Microsoft save yourself

  1. steve

    Actually, the last few Super Bowls were won by teams with stronger defenses than offenses…But I take your point about Microsoft.

    If you look at their TV ads lately, they’re all about creativity and imagination. I just saw one with an actuary who writes comic books at night. So they may be trying to move in the direction you recommend. My problem with their advertising has aloways been the complete lack of humor. The comic book ad begins to have a glimmer of humor.

    As a marketing proposition, Microsoft achieved its dominance when its software won the best reviewer ratings against the leading competitor. Word languished until it surpassed WordPerfect. Excel only took off after getting reviews claiming its superiority to Lotus 123. Liebowitz and Margolis document this pretty well in their Winners, Losers, and Microsoft. So perhaps superior product performance (defined in a new way) is still the key to their future.

  2. Grant

    Steve, I guess I meant “playing safe” and as part of a larger edit, I have rewritten accordingly. Thanks.

    And yes I’ve seen the Microsoft ads, and they are all about the creativity of the user. What what is needed here is some statement of the creativity of the corporation. But first they have to let this flourish.

    And yes, superior performance was key. But in this maturing market everyone can deliver something close to this, now the brand will be assessed on other grounds. (And now that I am a mature user, I know that I don’t need the something comprehensive or perfect to get the job done. Thanks, Grant

    Thanks, Grant

  3. Grant

    Matt, Trumba, a web-based calendar which allows Pam and I to keep our calendars separate or to join them. It is less laborious and more attractive than Outlook. But best of all: it is crash proof and machine independent. It is also OS independent, come to think of it. A good thing in our family where we are ecumenical when it comes to operating systems. Best, Grant

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