Category Archives: brands behaving badly (a case study)

Ebay, I have seen your future

Pips_book Ebay now squanders the brand as Microsoft did.  In the process, they are in the verge of surrendering share to Google, as Microsoft did.  Here follows a lesson in brand stewardship and consumer centricity. 

For several years, Microsoft owned my email system.  As a user of modest sophistication, I clung to the brand and its software, as if to a parent’s hand.  Microsoft and Outlook were my guardians in a strange land.  Ok, let’s be honest.  Microsoft didn’t just own my email system, they owned me.

But I migrated from Outlook, and I did so for precisely the reasons that Pip Coburn makes clear in his new book, The Change Function. (Conflict of interest declaration.  I am a "Change Fellow" at Coburn Ventures.  I don’t think this changes my attitude towards Pip’s book, but now you know.)

In The Change Function, Pip says that we adopt new and potentially strange innovations only when perceived benefits outweigh the perceived pain of adoption.  In Google’s case, this means I heard the siren call of gmail and I liked what I saw.  The "pull" was in place.  But I did not adopt, because the idea of switching email addresses and moving to an alien system really, really intimidated me. There was no "push" in place.  In Pip’s formula, the pain of adoption was greated than the benefits of adoption.

Happily, Google didn’t have to do anything to supply the "push."  It just had to wait for Microsoft to do nothing.  And that’s precisely what Microsoft did.  In the last several months of Outlook use, I must have received thousands of spam emails.  I was sometimes spending 15 minutes a day routing them out.  Spam was to prove an immense push. 

For some reason, Microsoft thought that spam was my problem.  How cavalier.  Apparently, the author and vendor of my email program was quite happy to expose me to daily difficulty.  Maybe Microsoft thought that spam was a third party opportunity they were obliged to leave to the likes of Symantec.  To which the answer is, of course, "so just buy them."  Certainly, there were work arounds to the spam problem, but these too were apparently my problem. 

Plainly, Microsoft is not a consumer centric organization.  A consumer centric organization would have said, "Good lord in heaven, we have exposed the consumer to misery.  Let’s fix it."  Instead they were sometimes mute on the problem and sometimes cavalier.  The outside chance, the last stand for brand credibility, was this: Microsoft wasn’t doing anything because nothing could be done. 

Enter, Google.  The first time I heard they were serious about spam control was the moment I began to move.  Apparently, Google is consumer centric.  They believe spam is a problem that belonged to them.  (I don’t want hear comments that say Google a "central server" advantage that Microsoft does not.  Microsoft was smart enough, rich enough and big enough to make or buy any number of solutions.  Someone surely ran a Google scenario and asked tough questions.  I guess no one ran the consumer centricity calculation or the Coburnian one.)

My shift was difficult but advantageous.  In Pip’s language, the pain of adoption was not anything like the benefit of adoption.  Or to put this in the language of the consumer: "Boy, it was hard to change. Boy, was it worth it!"

And as if to reward me for the move, Google gave me a "report spam" button with which to notify the world when spam does make it into my email basket.  I know it’s juvenile, but I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to click this button and dispense that message from Lagos that promises the proceeds from an abandoned bank account.  Now I can fight what I was once helpless to prevent.  I have joined a smart mob of Google emailers so to take action against the mere mob of spammers.

The brand effect is not just the augmentation of brand meaning and consumer gratitude.  The move to Google email drove a cascade that took me away from the Microsoft suite.  The man who was a Microsoft villager (medieval vassal trading loyalty for protection in a hostile land) is now prepared even to consider installing a nonWindows operating system.  That means I moved from blind-brand-loyalty to "take it or leave it" indifference in less than a year.  The price of failing to be consumer centric can be astonishingly high.  A year ago, any marketing researcher would surely have said, "McCracken and the millions of consumers like him, they are yours for the duration.  They will buy Microsoft to their deathbeds.

So to Ebay.  It’s a slightly different problem but it manifests the same way.  Everyday, even with Google filters in place, I receive phish and faux emails from Ebay, insisting that my account needs reviewing, that my orders have been lost, that payment was not received, that my account will be suspended!  (Hmm, you don’t suppose that Google has a vested interest in letting these emails through, do you?)  Some of these email are fiendishly clever.  So much so that I never open anything from Ebay.  (The cat who jumps on a hot stove never jumps on a cold one.  I remain an unsophisticated user.) 

I still use Ebay, but I can’t help thinking, "do they not understand this is happening?  Are they being cavalier on this one? Do they somehow think that email and, by extension, the security of an Ebay transaction and relationship, is my problem?"  And the moment I heard that Google was creating a service called Check Out, I thought "thank heaven."  It is still in its infancy and it we will see if it connects buyers and sellers with Ebay’s acuity, but my guess is that it will enable the transaction as well as Ebay and manage somehow to extract the confusion and risk now in place.

You can say, oh, well, Ebay can’t control what spammers and phishers send out.  Really?  Do we know how much this company is worth?  This company had the resources to go after spammer and phishers with a ferocity that could have cut the number by 80%.  (And there are other solutions including a restricted communications airspace that would allow Ebay to say we will never send you another email through conventional channels.)  Would that have been worth an investment of tens of millions of dollars?  Of course, it would.  All Ebay is doing is protecting the brand.  All it is doing is serving the consumer.  All it’s doing is taking a leadership position in the digital universe and marketplace.  Isn’t that the corporation’s job.  Isn’t this the sort of thing should be able to expect from a graduate of the Harvard Business School and P&G?

Ebay and Microsoft got to enter the digital marketplace at a Cambrian juncture.  There was almost no competition and therefore massive brand building resources and opportunities.  (Coca-Cola had this opportunity in the early 20th century.  General Motors had it at mid century.)  Clearly, brand loyalty is the digital space is not enduring.  (Compare our attitudes to those of mid century when people often said they would never drive a car that was not a Chevrolet.) People can move relatively easy ,and as they become more sophisticated, and Pip’s pain of adoption diminishes, they will.  This means the "stickiest" thing about the digital brand proposition is the extent to which it understands and responds to the consumer.  Consumer centricity and brand value are inextricably linked. 

Yes, these brands, Microsoft and Ebay, are technologically driven.  But finally, it comes down to this: you can’t ignore the end user without paying for it, pal.


Coburn, Pip.  2006.  The Change Function.  New York: Portfolio.  [Order from Amazon here.]