Microsoft’s Branding Mess Revisited – Is “Live” Really “Dead”?

Microsoft’s desperate attempts at purchasing all or part of Yahoo in recent months has highlighted the deep and ongoing branding mess that Redmond finds itself in.

So bad have things gotten that this fact was acknowledged in no less than MSFT’s internal email on how to get its listing Internet division to profitability:

… 4. Fix our online branding – Our brands are fragmented and confusing today, and we recognize a need to clarify and align our online branding . We are now driving forward to address this opportunity.

Ironically, in that same May 18 email MSFT’s Kevin Johnson was pre-announcing their latest attempt at search "disruption", "Live Search cashback" (yes, the lowercase ‘c’ is intentional, someone at MSFT must have thought that it was "cool").

Let’s examine why "Live" is such an unfortunate choice for branding Microsoft’s search offering along with a slew of other properties:

  1. Since "Live" was from all appearances originally conceived to refer to an online version of Windows and Office products (e.g. "Office Live Small Business", etc.), it draws an implicit comparison back to those products as being NOT "Live", or, in other words, "Dead". And that can only be considered to be unfortunate.
  2. By matching the term "live" with a slew of other terms across many different properties, there is brand dilution built right into the naming "methodology".
  3. "Live" is also a well-used, one could even say well-worn term in a context of "real, live, as in not recorded events" in entertainment and media, while browsing the internet is not really considered "live", unless we are talking about live streaming of audio or video. And so things get particularly confusing when paired in ways such as Microsoft’s "Craigslist killer" attempt "Windows Live Expo", which conjures up images of a real-life trade show or other similar events in most people’s minds. So it comes as no surprise that Live Expo never got any traction and is now being decommissioned.
  4. "Live" may actually also be generally too generic a term to capture any real mindshare: "Live Search", "Live Expo", "Live _Anything_" do not carve out enough of a unique mental real estate in the way that newly minted terms, and/or terms with novel usage such as Amazon, Yahoo, Google, and eBay can. Ask yourself if there is a reason that just about none of the internet companies built on "generic" domain names ever really took off. Buy.com, Shop.com, etc. etc.
  5. Oddly enough, single syllable terms may also be too short to, except for a very small number of exceptions, create enough naming differentiation and rhythm: One syllable is like one single "beat", when the majority of successful brand names (not necessarily companies) are two or sometimes three syllables long, with the stress typically falling on the first syllable: INtel, BEbo, iPhone, Gmail, Windows, YouTube, Meebo, Facebook, MySpace, eBay, PayPal, Kayak, iTunes, iPod, craigslist, WordPress, Blogger, Apple, flickr, twitter, Yahoo, Netflix, Google, Netscape, Drupal, Hotmail, Amazon(3), Firefox(3). Add your own favorite non-techy examples here.

The bottom line is, brand names need to be memorable first and foremost. And by being easy to say (using rhythm and even rhyme), you and I and everyone else are more likely to repeat them – out loud or to ourselves. Add uniqueness that ideally carves out a new spot in our mental real estate (a "category label" – think Q-Tips, Xerox, and yes, Google, as in "to google someone or something"), and that is NOT confusing, and you’re there.

To bring it back to Microsoft, "Windows Live Hotmail" isn’t it. Hotmail (not originally created by Microsoft) was actually a very good brand name, which accounts among other things for it’s wide, "viral" spread throughout the world.

Bizarrely enough, Microsoft in it’s tortured branding forays and strict insistence on spreading around its still powerful "Windows" brand , had considered dropping the "Hotmail" name entirely in favor of "Windows Live Mail".

Windows incidentally was always a decent brand as long as it is reserved for naming an operating system, anything past that was needless brand dilution. I have discussed previously where the strong but mistaken urge toward brand dilution stems from: Corporate hubris and misunderstanding of branding fundamentals.

Microhoo: The “Post-Mortem Post” – Part 2

OK, this isn’t the post I meant to write, but the (pseudo-)developments are simply happening too fast to catch one’s breath.

Today, Microsoft apparently walked away from a Yahoo deal more thoroughly than they previously had, which in itself makes little sense and proves how much Ballmer and Co. have kept themselves in suspended animation during this ongoing saga.

Now, as far as Yahoo was concerned, we knew that they wouldn’t get a lot done given the continued wheeling and dealing by billionaire investor Carl Icahn. Despite Jerry Yang’s pleading with the troops to keep their noses to the grindstone, there is simply no way that Yahoo has not been deeply affected:

I was at Sprint in a former life at the time when the proposed merger with WorldCom was going on, which ultimately, and it turns out mercifully, was blocked by the DOJ. And I can tell you from that experience that very little of substance beyond basic maintenance mode happened inside Sprint for well over 6 months.

All eyes, minds, and water-cooler conversations were cued on the proposed deal and its ramifications. And that was under relatively amicable circumstances mind you.

So, with the pronouncements by MSFT today, Yahoo’s stock taking a big hit, and Yahoo in turn announcing that a deal to outsource search ad serves to Google may be happening as soon as today, someone might be tempted to say: The nightmare is over.

Or Is It?

Despite all of the "titillation", the Icahn back-and-forths, the rumor, the innuendo, and the inflated/bruised egos, let’s take a step back and look at the fundamentals of this:

Continue reading “Microhoo: The “Post-Mortem Post” – Part 2″

Microhoo Cancelled for Now: The “Post-Mortem Post” – Part 1

It’s been 10 days since Microsoft-Yahoo deal was called off by Steve Ballmer, and in the days that followed the commentary and speculation has been churning at record pace.

Several times last week I was tempted to write this post, only to hold off for a while longer because I wanted to write something for my readers that would go well beyond a news rehash.

As I said in previous posts, it is easy to lose sight of the essentials in the dizzying onslaught of "Steve said, Jerry said…" titillation, investor and market timer stock price considerations, and "what’s the next step" agonizing. Instead let’s go back to Business Mind Hacks basics:

I have argued that the deal was never a good idea in the first place, and that this should have been the first and foremost question on anyone’s mind. Even now, there appear to be major Yahoo stockholders such as Carl Icahn, who are attempting to employ corporate board machinations to force the deal after all.

And of course there has been plenty of speculation that Microsoft would come back with the same or lower offer after having Yahoo’s stock price pummeled for a little while (incidentally, it didn’t go down quite as much as some had predicted, possibly a sign that the market viewed the deal was as in fact much less of a clear winner).

None of it would really matter as far as the fundamentals of the deal: That Google is the uncontested market leader in search and paid search ads, that neither Yahoo nor Microsoft have been able to compete effectively, and that they are falling further behind every day. (Notice recent earnings data showing Google’s search revenue is on track to surpass Microsoft’s flagging Windows/Vista revenues some time in 2009!)

There are several reasons for this, some technical, and some Branding/Positioning related and hence much more basic than the complex issues relating to e.g. paid search optimized monetization. I will further discuss the latter in another post. Let’s go with the branding issues for today.

Continue reading “Microhoo Cancelled for Now: The “Post-Mortem Post” – Part 1″