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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Microsoft’s New Seinfeld Ads: Can They Turn Their Branding On A Dime?

Microsoft’s new Seinfeld & Bill Gates commercials have been widely panned. Presumably the first two salvos in a $300 Million ad campaign launched to soften and redefine Microsoft’s image, it would seem questionable whether years of consumer experience with Microsoft as the consummate powerbroker can be erased, regardless of the question of the ultimate quality/enjoyability of the ads.

Can two or more reasonably goofy and self-deprecating ads, which someone on a Silicon Alley Insider comment thread had smartly termed a "branding palate cleanser", overturn years of Windows support frustrations, forced upgrade paths, and general Microsoft bullying of all and sundry?

I’d say it’s doubtful:

1) Microsoft is seen as stodgy and corporate because, well, they are…

Analysts such as Henry Blodget had argued recently that Microsoft should simply acknowledge that they are much better at selling to the corporate world (after all even their Windows OS has been mostly sold to the PC Manufacturers rather than directly to the consumer), and concentrate on B2B while letting go off most of the comsumer space aspirations that have so far proved massively unprofitable to them (Zune, Live Search, etc.).

2) Microsoft has tried before to bring in "The Loyalist" archetype in its marketing (MS Office as your buddy brand at work, etc.), and it never really worked too well, because their association with "The Powerbroker" archetype is so entrenched. This latter fact BTW explains why they do so well in the B2B (Business-To-Business) realm, because "The Powerbroker" is something virtually every business person understands.

3) Trying to bring in "The Buddy" again in the form of "The Adventures of Seinfeld And Gates", alongside of "The Little Trickster" (with humor, irreverence, sleight of hand, etc.) via Seinfeld is ultimately no more likely to stick than before.

Typically companies have been using this archetype to add some delight (your Inner Child likes humor) to their otherwise "boring" products (e.g. insurers, see the GEICO Gecko, etc.). But these companies typically didn’t have strong existing identifications like Microsoft does.

Once again, it’s doubtful that Microsoft can shed the associations that have been forming in the consumers’ minds for about two decades. Just ask IBM: They’ve had a lot of little humorous ads out over the last few years (most recently with Disney characters drawn into corporate server room live action!).

So ask yourself: Do you think of IBM as hip and funny?

Once an imprint is burned in deeply, you’ll have a heck of a time getting it changed. Microsoft is proof that all the money in the world (which it undoubtably has) can’t move the mountain in people’s minds.