Thursday, December 31, 2009

Three Branding Lessons From Microsoft in 2009

Following is an article from Fast Company, one of my absolute favorite sources of business insight. Thanks to David Brier for such a thoughtful — and heretical — post. From one heretic to another: Good job!

Three Lessons Microsoft Taught Us About Branding in 2009

For years now, Apple with its "I'm a Mac. I'm a PC." campaign has essentially established Microsoft's marketing position in the minds of consumers. In actual fact, Apple has "positioned" the entire PC world, but Microsoft, being synonymous with PCs, has become the greatest victim in that campaign's wake.

Most everyone seems to enjoy Apple's ads. The casting is brilliant, the ads are entertaining and the messages hit any sore points about Windows from Vista to tech support, and Indeed, these ads have become culturally iconic.

The Wrong Thing To Do

So what has Microsoft done over the years? From a branding standpoint, pretty much nothing. (At least, nothing effective.)

They hired the super-hot agency Crispin Porter for a reputed $300-million+ ad campaign. The first ad used Jerry Seinfeld with Bill Gates in what appeared to be an attempt at humanizing Gates and Microsoft. Ad critics grimaced. This ad was launched with the tag line, "Life Without Walls" which became a punch line for Mac enthusiasts and beyond. Mac-loyalist blogs commented, "In a life without walls, who needs Windows?" Ouch.

The Wronger Thing To Do

Then, Microsoft delivered a series of ads where the position they were trying to dislodge made up about 90% of its commercial copy lines. The "I'm a PC" campaign was created with very loose, amateur-styled video techniques, again to humanize. The obvious goal was "How do we become cool and relevant?"

Only problem is that it directly played into Apple's campaign. It's impossible to see one of those ads and not think of Apple. I could understand their thinking, but they were bringing nothing new to the table. It was all defense, with no strategic offense.

Even now, the Microsoft stores are being compared to the Apple stores.

What Have We Learned?

So, if the deep-pocketed Microsoft machine can make these missteps, is there anything we can learn from this so we can spend (waste) less marketing dollars in the marketplace to promote our brands and our own businesses?

Yes. In three simple steps.

1. Don't try to be something you're not. Pick your sweet spot and embrace it. Don't try to simply follow the lead of others because (even if you're Microsoft) if you're following, you're not leading. Just look at Zune (and its lackluster market share) as a case study.

What to do: Don't fake it. Elaine on Seinfeld once told Jerry that she'd "faked it". Totally shocked, Jerry asked, how many times? Her response was, "every time." Jerry compared Elaine to Meryl Streep for her incredible acting skills. When it comes your brand, be real. Don't try to fake it. Find something you can get passionate about and something your brand can do remarkably well.

2. To do nothing is branding death. Saying and doing nothing or too little leaves your customers to seek elsewhere to get the facts (or any ideas if facts don't exist). They'll take whatever information there is unless better, smarter, more thought-provoking information comes along to supplant it.

If you don't like your fate being dictated at random, you had better speak up. Then improve what you say. Then increase how many people hear it. As the business guru Peter Drucker said, "You can't shrink your way to greatness."

What to do: Something. Anything. Provide a regular stream of information that's informative, educational, interesting, engaging, and preferably, new.

3. If your branding is defensive, you're promoting the war, not your personal brand. Branding has often been compared to war on the battlefield. I like this analogy better: A brand is like a person. A person can engage someone or bore them. So can your brand. You can be genuinely interesting or you can try to be interesting (just like a brand). You can be passionate or monotonous. Inventive or ho-hum. In each case, your brand can embody those qualities as well.

Here's a good acid test: If your brand were a person, would you want to go out and hang out with her/him in your time off? If the answer is no, then the odds are others will have a similar response, leaving your brand as something one buys when it's needed versus being something that is passionately sought out.

Learn from Microsoft's Mistakes

With Microsoft's deep pockets, we can learn one thing: It's not the size of the pocket but what you do with it that counts.

As always, thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic


  1. Thanks Jan for the post! This has proved to be quite a popular article and thanks for sharing it with your readers. Happy New Year to you and your readers. Let's all learn from this and have a rockin' 2010.

  2. Our Company is going through the BRANDING process currently. Thanks for an EXCELLENT article on Mistakes by the Big Guys- as we are a small forthcoming company that "rubs shoulders" with some of the big guys ( IBM, HP, Cisco, etc.) I have forwarded this to our Marketing Director and look forward to a successful branding campaign, utilizing the points you bring out here. Excellent! Thanks so much!