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  • 12.25.09

3 Lessons Microsoft Taught Us About Branding

“I’m a brand. I’m a generality.” might have been the subtext for the most well known and talked about campaign of the ’90s. Yet, as one looked at one of the great branding battles of the last decade, there were three takeaway lessons that we learned.

For years now, Apple with its “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC.” campaign has
essentially established Microsoft’s marketing position in the minds of
consumers. In actual fact, Apple has “positioned” the entire PC world,
but Microsoft, being synonymous with PCs, has become the greatest
victim in that campaign’s wake.

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Most everyone seems to enjoy Apple’s ads. The casting is brilliant, the
ads are entertaining and the messages hit any sore points about Windows
from Vista to tech support, and Indeed, these ads have become
culturally iconic.

The Wrong Thing To Do

So what has Microsoft done over the years? From a branding standpoint, pretty much nothing.

They
recently hired the super-hot agency Crispin Porter for a reputed $300
million+ ad campaign. The first ad used Jerry Seinfeld with Bill Gates
in what appeared to be an attempt at humanizing Mr. Gates and
Microsoft. Ad critics grimaced. This ad was launched with the tag line,
“Life Without Walls” which became a punch line for Mac enthusiasts and
beyond. Mac-loyalist blogs commented, “In a life without walls, who
needs Windows?” Ouch.

The Wronger Thing To Do

Then, Microsoft delivered a
series of ads where the position they were trying to dislodge made up
about 90% of its commercial copy lines. The “I’m a PC.” campaign was
created with very loose, amateur-styled video techniques, again to
humanize. The obvious goal was “How do we become cool and relevant?”
Only problem is that it directly played into Apple’s campaign. It’s
impossible to see one of those ads and not think of Apple. I could
understand their thinking, but they were bringing nothing new to the table. It was all defense, with no strategic offense.

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Even now, the Microsoft stores are being compared to the Apple stores.

What Have We Learned?

So, if the
deep-pocketed Microsoft machine can make these missteps, is there
anything we can learn from this so we can spend (waste) less marketing
dollars in the marketplace to promote our brands and our own businesses?

Yes. In 3 simple steps.

The 3 Branding Lessons Microsoft Taught the Technology World:

1. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Pick your
sweet spot and embrace it. Don’t try to simply follow the lead of
others because (even if you’re Microsoft) if you’re following, you’re
not leading. Just look at Zune (and its lackluster market share) as a
case study.

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What to do: Don’t fake it. Elaine on Seinfeld once
told Jerry that she’d “faked it”. Totally shocked, Jerry asked, how
many times? Her response was, “every time.” Jerry compared Elaine to
Meryl Streep for her incredible acting skills. When it comes your
brand, be real. Don’t try to fake it. Find something you can get
passionate about and something your brand can do remarkably well.

2. To do nothing is branding death. Saying and
doing nothing or too little leaves your customers to seek elsewhere to
get the facts (or any ideas if facts don’t exist). They’ll take
whatever information there is unless better, smarter, more
thought-provoking information comes along to supplant it.

If you
don’t like your fate being dictated at random, you had better speak up.
Then improve what you say. Then increase how many people hear it. As
the business guru Peter Drucker said, “You can’t shrink your way to
greatness.”

What to do: Something. Anything. Provide a regular
stream of information that’s informative, educational, interesting,
engaging, and preferably, new.

3. If your branding is defensive, you’re promoting the war, not your personal brand.
Branding has often been compared to war on the battlefield. I like this
analogy better: A brand is like a person. A person can engage someone
or bore them. So can your brand. You can be genuinely interesting or
you can try to be interesting (just like a brand). You can be
passionate or monotonous. Inventive or ho-hum. In each case, your brand
can embody those qualities as well.

Here’s a good acid test: If
your brand were a person, would you want to go out and hang out with on
your time off? If the answer is no, then the odds are others will have
a similar response, leaving your brand as something one buys when it’s
needed versus being something that is passionately sought out.

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Learn from Microsoft’s Mistakes

With
Microsoft’s deep pockets, we can learn one thing: It’s not the size of
the pocket but what you do with it that counts. Until next time.

About the author

Brand identity expert, veteran designer, author, speaker and Fast Company expert blogger. He’s been written about in Forbes.com, INC and Fortune Small Business.

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