It’s been 13.5 Years, Microsoft!

Henry Blodget over at the newly rebranded “Business Insider – Silicon Alley Insider” (a hint of “Microsoft branding mess” in that one, no?), this morning wrote an excellent post on how the balance of power may have just shifted back to Yahoo in the long-running Micro-Hoo buy-out saga (of Yahoo search only, or otherwise).

I consider this a must-read to get yourself back up-to-date on everything that has transpired over the past 3+ months behind the scenes, while we were all busy watching something else, the global financial melt-down, say.

It is almost precisely 1 year and 1 month to the day that Microsoft first launched its unsolicited buy-out bid, and you know the endless back-and-forth that ensued. What stands out is that as of today, while Yahoo’s stock has fallen from its pre-offer price of about $19 on 2/1/2008 to about $12 (and Jerry Yang was so maligned for not taking Ballmer’s offer that he ultimately resigned a few months ago), Microsoft’s stock has gone from $32 to now around $17 during that time!

If you do the math, that’s worse than Yahoo’s stock has done. So who still wants to argue that Ballmer would have really been much better at steering Yahoo (or really worse: the combined Micro-hoo “Franken-carrier”)? Which brings me back to the headline, and this quote from Blodget’s post that sums it all up very neatly:

Another six months of Microsoft Internet futility.  Last summer, Microsoft had been struggling to succeed online for 13 years, and it had only managed to run a distant third.  Now it has been struggling for 13 and a half years.  The company’s Internet branding, strategy, and organization is in its usual chaotic disarray.  Perhaps the new search head, stolen from Yahoo, can cut through the bureaucracy and fix everything.  After 13.5 years of a lot of talent and money being thrown at this problem, however, we wouldn’t hold our breath.

So the saga continues. The patient (Micro-hoo) indeed isn’t completely dead yet… but Yahoo’s new CEO Carol Bartz now appears to have the upper hand in any negotiations from here on…

Note: In case you don’t recall how badly Microsoft’s branding in particular has been going, refresh your memory here. Branding is where it all begins, after all, how can you know what you should be doing if you don’t know who you are?! And hoping that an engineer like Lu, however talented, is going to fix branding and related woes is simply delusional.

You might also enjoy this post on complexity, and why even the 800 Pound Gorilla such as Microsoft cannot avoid it’s pernicious effects.

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.