Five Things Microsoft Shouldn’t Do

G.L. Hoffman offers some marketing advice in the wake of the news that Microsoft has hired Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency that revamped Burger King among many other brands.

Certainly those guys have their work cut out for them. Microsoft is much more a part of people’s daily lives than perhaps any other brand that agency has worked on — we may occasionally get a Whopper or pop some of Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, but a lot of people spend a significant portion of their day staring into one or more Microsoft products. There are relatively few people whose minds aren’t already made up about Microsoft, who don’t have at least one horror story about how Windows or Office briefly made their lives miserable. If that weren’t bad enough, Apple is mocking Microsoft’s signature product in what is probably the most recognizable ad campaign running today. How do you turn a brand around in the face of all that?

Hoffman’s suggestions in brief:

  1. Get Bill Gates involved in the ads.
  2. I’m not actually sure what his second suggestion is; you’d best read it yourself. I think it’s something about innovating from the bottom up, then publicizing it.
  3. Respond to Apple.
  4. Ditch the Microsoft logo.
  5. Bring Gates back to save the company by making “smart” the new “cool.”

Suggestion 1 is obviously wrong. The only way to make Gates appealing would be to poke fun at his dorkishness, and he’s too uptight for that. Gates isn’t a lovable dweeb like John Hodgman’s PC character; he’s stiff and unfunny and rather painful to listen to. Likewise, suggestion 5 draws an incorrect analogy to Jobs’ role at Apple. Jobs returned to a company that lost its way without him; Microsoft is still operating in Gates’ mold: its culture is built around competition, not innovation, and its software products are designed to appeal to developers and IT managers more than end users. And there may be some people who vaguely believe Gates invented personal computing, but it can’t have escaped the public’s attention that the latest technical innovations to catch on with the public — the iPod, MySpace, YouTube, Digg, even that Kindle thing — came from companies other than Microsoft.

I don’t see what dumping the Microsoft logo achieves. In fact, I’m not even sure what it looks like. Does Microsoft even have a corporate logo, as opposed to the Windows or Office logos?

Suggestion 2 I have no idea about. Giving the lower-rank employees license to pursue innovative ideas is a great idea, but it has nothing to do with an ad campaign.

That leaves idea 3. In a way, it makes sense: Apple has been making Windows its bitch for two years now, and Microsoft has done nothing to counter it. But there’s a difference between David picking on Goliath and Goliath picking on David. Responding to Apple validates Apple as competition and lets them set the terms of the debate. Microsoft could try to turn the tables by pointing out the Mac’s shortcomings — fewer available games, smaller hardware choice, some killer app or other not available for Mac — but it still makes Microsoft look derivative. Apple would probably even turn such an effort back on them: first they copy our software, then our music player, and now even our advertising.

As you can tell, I don’t think CP+B will have much effect on Microsoft’s brand. Microsoft’s marketing mostly sucks, but marketing is really the symptom, not the problem.

People forget the time — not too long ago — when Apple’s advertising was much less effective than it was today. Apart from the iMac, Apple had nothing compelling to offer the public in the late 90s-early ’00s. I remember staring stupefied at a commerial showing Apple’s then-new Pro Mouse zooming across the screen, accompanied by (I think) a Jimi Hendrix song … and that was it. A prime-time television commercial devoted to a mouse. Nothing whatsoever about the Macintosh, or why one might possibly prefer to use it. Nothing, for that matter, on what made the Pro Mouse itself worth buying. I remember a lot of empty, stylish ads coming out of Apple in this period, and they had no impact on the company’s sales or market share. Apple looked like it was talking to itself, and offering no one else a reason to listen.

What helped Apple’s marketing turn the corner was Apple’s products. First OS X matured to the point that it could begin to be offered as a viable competitor to Windows, prompting the “Switch” campaign: Apple’s first culture-changing ad series. People made fun of the spots, refuted them, bitched about them — but they remembered them. Then, of course, the iPod came along, a genuine breakout product innovative enough to revive the entire Apple brand. The ads were perfectly executed, but the product they portrayed was good enough that the spots couldn’t be dismissed as empty exercises in style. While Microsoft frittered on the long-delayed successor to Windows XP, an invigorated Apple squared off directly against the Windows juggernaut, confident that OS X more than stood up to the comparison.

From a consumer standpoint, Microsoft simply has nothing around which to build a truly substantive campaign: Vista is a boondoggle, the Zune at best an acceptable me-too product, Office something that most people get when they buy a new computer. Their only somewhat successful consumer product, XBox, has been deliberately marketed with as few ties to the Microsoft brand as possible. So where’s the story? What are CP+B going to build on?

This is a creative agency, and I’m sure the spots they produce are going to raise eyebrows. I’m equally sure they won’t make a lot of difference. Vista will continue its slow trickling adoption rate; Apple will continue to be at least a year ahead in digital media players; Google will maintain its lead in online services. Microsoft and CP+B will part ways in a year or so, giving Microsoft yet another opportunity to realize the solutions to its brand problems need to begin in-house, with new leadership and a new focus on building forward-thinking, consumer-focused products.