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”:

First, scrap-booking is not exactly associated with CEOs. And the overall informal tone of the ads only heightens the confusion. While we can understand in principle where they were trying to go with this, softening up the image, making CEOs cool somehow as they are buying into the “people ready business” message, it just doesn’t work.

Why? Again because it violates “The Powerbroker” archetype attributions of which our mental image of a CEO is a prime example. It will never really fit with “The Loyalist” archetype (buddy/friendship/etc.) that is being angled for here. Your CEO will never quite be your buddy, unless you are on the board of directors or something like that (or maybe work at Zappos).

What’s the end result? Ads that don’t work, that don’t “stick” in your or anyone else’s mind, because they are just too confusing. Microsoft has tried a number of times in the past to bring “The Loyalist” archetype into its marketing (MS Office as your buddy brand at work, etc.), and it never really worked too well then either.

So what’s the solution? 1) Figure out who you are first, what archetypes make sense for you, what you truly want to stand for. 2) Communicate that consistently, without fail. If you did your homework in step 1), it should in fact be HARD to get step 2) wrong.

In Microsoft’s case, it should simply embrace that which it already is, “The Powerbroker”. It has served it exceedingly well in the B2B (Business-To-Business) realm, because “The Powerbroker” is something virtually every business person understands and intuitively respects.

Notice that most of its software has been sold to other BUSINESSES first, even if it ends up on the consumer’s home PC, or their computer at work. Why mess with that out of a sense of hurt corporate ego?

17 thoughts on “Recent Ads Betray The Secret To Microsoft’s Branding Confusion

  1. CNET (usually a relatively Microsoft friendly outfit) had this to say Saturday (did they read my post?):

    “It is difficult to name two Microsoft campaigns that actually built on each other. It is difficult to name two Microsoft campaigns that even reflected the same spirit, the same ethos, the same sense of a defined brand.

    In the end, Microsoft, a brand that has considerable strength in the marketplace, seems to have become something of a diffused, defused blur in projecting its image. Microsoft built a business machine. But its brand advertising became like your demented auntie at Christmas: there, but not there.”


  2. Good analysis. It is amusing to see how the Microsoft elephant is so scared and fumbling over the Apple mouse.

    This comment was originally posted on Digg

  3. People seem to forget that back in the mid 90s, when Apple almost bellied up, it was Mr Bill Gates himself who very quietly came to the rescue and forked out a huge amount of money for a good ownership portion of Apple. My understanding is, Mr. Gates makes a profit every time a Windows package sells, an Office package sells and an Apple computer sells, that’s a nice position to be in. Mr. Jobs, a fierce competitor – but I’ve seen boxers beating the crap out of each other and then drinking and singing in a bar, can be credited with making people want to own two computer systems, PC and Mac.

  4. In reply to @SisyMoney:
    All those points are well taken, however the focus of this post was simply on MSFT’s branding struggles. The fact that the ads happened to be about the Mac vs. PC “wars” is completely secondary/circumstantial.

    I know a lot of people think I am merely a Mac “fanboy” for frequently criticizing MSFT. Not so: I’ve been a MSFT customer for nearly 15 years, and currently don’t own any Apple products other than an iPod (though that may change in the near future).

    It’s just that I wish, as I have mentioned here before, that MSFT had done more with all of the money we’ve been handing them all of these years. That is really the crux of the matter.

    Their R&D budgets have been higher than anyone’s, probably more than all of the VC funding for hungry young startups per year combined. Yet we have seen preciously little of substance coming out of MSFT’s corner, instead there have been recent bombs such as Vista (I use it, I know its problems all too well).

    Unfortunately, this is all a rather predictable outcome of a monopoly situation. The incentives to innovate and create first class products simply go down. In my view, it would have been better for MSFT and all of us had they been split, about 10 years ago, into 3 more nimble, less bureaucratic, more hungry companies with much greater focus.

    I would bet that the resulting “MSN/internet division” company for example would have turned a profit by now, rather than languishing as it has for 13.5 years -> *link*

    Heck, it might have even been nimble enough to throw up a serious challenge to Google in search. Sigh…

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