Recent Ads Betray The Secret To Microsoft’s Branding Confusion

After the first two salvos in a $300 Million ad campaign, launched to soften and redefine Microsoft’s image, failed to connect despite making use of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and former Microsoft CEO and world’s richest geek Bill Gates, Microsoft has been pushing a slew of new ads in recent months. And arguably, not one of them has hit the mark.

I wrote a while ago that the attempt at humor had fallen flat precisely because Microsoft’s “The Powerbroker” archetype had been so deeply entrenched, almost literally burned into the mind of the consumer for decades. Did things get any easier from there?

The next salvo a few months ago featured the “I’m a PC” ads which cast Microsoft (by way of its supposed users) as a strange mixture of proud/aggressive and defiant/sulking. It was pointed out then that “Microsoft as Victim” just doesn’t really work. And again, the archetype branding explains why: You cannot be “The Powerbroker” and still garner much sympathy for supposedly having been wronged.

This same theme was picked up once more recently with the “not cool enough for a Mac” ad featuring a girl named Lauren, which really was meant to focus on price as an angle to attack the notoriously premium-priced “Mac” products. In theory the idea of highlighting one of your competitor’s weaknesses (price) is workable, especially during a severe recession. But you cannot do it while violating your core archetypes.

If Microsoft had said something like, “we are the largest software company on the planet, and because of that we can create economies of scale in the production of PCs and their loading with software that much smaller competitors like Apple just cannot match, thus saving you money”, it would have made some sense.

But not with this passive-aggressive jabbing built in. It confuses people. Instinctively, no one takes it seriously when the 800 pound gorilla complains about having “unfairly” been called “not cool enough”.

And then Microsoft recently launched another ad in the series that went all wrong yet again. Silicon Alley Insider explains why:

Jackson [the kid] mentions offhand he wants “a good gaming computer.” This is a fantastic line of attack for Microsoft: The Mac has a tiny library of professionally produced games compared to what’s on PCs […] But Microsoft fumbles the ball, and doesn’t follow through with what’s arguably their best anti-Mac selling point after “PCs are cheaper.”

Instead, Jackson’s mom makes an incredibly off-target anti-Apple smear: Checking out the Macs, she says “they’re kind of popular with this age.” Umm, no. Kids can’t afford Mac prices or appreciate Mac build quality. Far better for Microsoft to stick with […] Macs are kind of popular with hip adults, but expensive.

So the theme of hurt feelings clouding Microsoft’s positioning and marketing continues. In truth, as the incumbent and still near monopolist (85-90% share despite Apple’s recent inroads) in the personal computer market, Microsoft would do better not to mention “Mac” at all.

“The Powerbroker” archetype by definition can choose to ignore the much smaller competitor. Reacting to any perceived slight only makes people wonder what is going on.

But the branding confusion gets even more pronounced with the recent launch of a new series of Microsoft ads featuring a strange mixture of low key scrap-booking and CEO interview voice-overs, punctuated by a slogan of “Microsoft – The People Ready Business”:

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Cuil One Week On: “Worst. Launch. Ever.” Redux

I already wrote in detail about Cuil’s branding crimes last week.

Then an interview by Silicon Alley Insider’s Peter Kafka with Cuil’s CEO  Tom Costello today reminded us of everything that went wrong with the would-be Google competitor’s lauch, as well as everything that is still wrong with it.

While apparently the outages of the first days have subsided, many of Cuil’s search results are still low on relevancy, and still juxtapose seemingly random images from other websites with a given search result (prompting some cries of copyright violations).

There was much discussion over on FriendFeed involving Robert Scoble and others as to whether this "launch" was done just to position them for a buy-out by e.g. Microsoft for the technology. I tend to agree, given how obviously poorly everything was executed.

They had to have known results weren’t going to be very good, even more so about the sometimes outright embarrassing "false image" issues.

If they didn’t, this would constitute a formidable case of group think, against which one would think there should have been at least some push-back/reality-checking from the venture capitalists that put $33 Million of funding into Cuil.

Then again, they let Mr. "I’m Irish, it seemed natural enough, and works for me" Costello get away with naming the thing "Cuil".

When prompted about the questionable brand naming choice, Mr. Costello attempted a weak defense by saying "[i]t’s hard to find a four letter name…". Why did it need to be a four letter name? Were they trying to defeat Google through shortness of the domain?!?

(Incidentally, very short domain names haven’t really worked out particularly well for anyone, just ask,, and others.)

Too-cute-by-half "Cuil" comes across like a development code name (like "Longhorn" for Vista, etc.), not like the final product of a well-thought-out branding exercise. Which of course would lend further credence to the idea that this "launch" may have simply been a "buy us already" plea.

It gets even funnier now that a number of sites have posted strong evidence that the Gaelic word "cuil", while leaving the company open to all manner of misspellings and mispronunciations, really doesn’t mean "knowledge" (as still claimed by Costello and Co.) after all.

Given all of these "shenanigans" (sorry, couldn’t resist… and who did these guys have for Gaelic teachers anyway? :), it comes as little surprise that Cuil has now apparently lowered their target from Google slayer to Google backup:

it’s not supposd to be better than Google – just an alternative…

Another similar "crime against branding" name for a start-up recently went to the "deadpool": News personalization site Their CEO probably also thought that the name was intuitive and "worked for them"…

Cuil, Knol, and other crimes against branding

Yesterday’s launch of would-be Google search killer "Cuil", dreamed up by several ex-Googlers with $33M in funding, may have been a lesson in launch catastrophe.

But even more problematic than the apparently relatively poor search results and availability outages (Cuil had after all boasted of a larger search index than Google), were the crimes against branding it committed with its "Cuil" (they want you to pronounce it "cool" or "kewl") name:

  1. It’s already been pointed out that there are at least 5 alternative pronunciations, misspellings, and… shall we say "problematic"… meanings of "Cuil".
  2. Apparently the company decided to change the name from "Cuill" (with two L) very late in the game, with some of their press releases apparently still having the old spelling. While the old version did nothing to help with spelling or pronunciation, just the fact there would be such a late change does bode ill for their understanding of branding strategy (which would be to get completely clear on your branding first as an integral part of your Unique Selling Proposition – USP).
  3. While "cuil(l)" supposedly means "knowledge" in Gaelic, and is in fact pronounced similar to "cool" in that language, such a play on words, while it might have seemed clever to people inside the company, violates one of the first rules of branding: That the name or message must pass the "Telephone Test" (remember the "message whispering chain" game you used to play in kindergarden?). If you have to explain the product, spell it, and explain the pronunciation all at once, it’s game over baby.

But the Cuil ex-Googlers aren’t the only ones cooking up cases of "too cute by half". Google itself has been hot on their heels with it’s new "Knol" offering, a sort-of competitor to Wikipedia, as well as Seth Godin’s and

(Knol may actually become yet another case of Google ranking its own properties highly in its search results, thus making it a potential spam haven a la Squidoo. It has also elicited hand-wringing from Mahalo’s Jason Calacanis as the entry of Google into the content space.)

"Knol" is supposed to stand for "unit of knowledge" (whatever THAT means), and the name is plagued by almost the same level of confusion as "Cuil":

Too short to really carve out mental real-estate, oddly distasteful to say (yes, the underlying emotional state in saying a name does matter), and mixing it up with the real word "knoll" – a small, natural hill according to Wikipedia. As in "the grassy knoll"…

Google has a long history of producing very odd-sounding (Orkut and Froogle come to mind) or overly generic names, few of which work well as brands. Many of them also commit the cardinal sin of brand dilution (attaching additional, unrelated meanings to your core brand, as in "Google Checkout", which is predictably hardly a blip in the payment processing space).

Notice that Google’s brands other than its core search service have worked best when they avoided these pitfalls: Gmail, Adwords and Adsense – which were strong enough names to stand on their own and thus became detached from "Google Adwords", asf.

YouTube should have been another lesson to Google (and companies everywhere), that a unique name always works better than a brand extended/diluted one: Google Video, which is also a generic, never got any real traction vs. YouTube.

Of course Google "solved" that problem by acquiring YouTube for $1.6 Billion. Getting better branding advice for their own offerings from the start would almost certainly have been a lot cheaper…

At least they then got it, and resisted renaming YouTube. Had Microsoft bought it, with their branding track record, they would have likely renamed it "Windows Live Video Tube".