Microsofties want better brands

This has been a tough week for Microsoft, and for the Microsoft brand. The scheduled release of Vista has been moved back from 2006 to early 2007, missing the big Christmas season. Release of Office 2007 will also be delayed until the new year. As if this wasn’t enough, the company also announced a massive re-org intended to re-align desktop and online strategies. And, at the end the week, both Dare Obasanjo and Robert Scoble cite weaknesses in emerging Microsoft brands. Dare compares new MS online brand efforts to competing Google and Yahoo brands, and finds the Microsoft brands confusing. The Scobelizer agrees.

Dare and Scoble make some good points. I’ve touched on Microsoft’s brand quandaries here, here, and here, and obliquely in my post Brands are code.

Based on this week’s events, here are some additional thoughts:

Microsoft’s over-arching brand problem is that it is focused too much on itself, and not enough on the customer. This is due to several factors:

  1. A monopoly power position in which the customer simply isn’t that important to begin with. (With no competition, it’s easy to believe that customers will be forced to buy your products no matter what your brand says or does. So, why worry?)
  2. A literal engineering mindset in which brands are often reduced to simple naming conventions. It’s as if Microsoft brands were still being written in DOS. At best, they specify. All too often, they revert to slogans. Rarely do they sing. Apple gets tremendous leverage from its brands; Microsoft gets far less.
  3. Bureaucratic infighting in which turf battles impinge on brand identities. (With 60,000 employees, this is no surprise.) See Mini-Microsoft for details. This also happens because there is not a dominant “brand will” at the top.
  4. The ongoing desire to control markets through a monolith of integrated products. In most cases, this greatly restricts the freedom of any one brand to excel on its own merits, and energize customers. This also means that the creativity of MS employees is often not translated into brand value. This is a loss for Microsoft, and for its customers.

With regard to the first factor, you can only get by with this approach when you don’t have to compete head to head with the likes of Google and Yahoo. When you do, any brand shortcomings become painfully evident.

Of course, Microsoft does have some great brands. The classic desktop apps (Word, Excel, Power Point, etc.) are terrific. Xbox is doing a great job, and may soon de-throne Playstation. It’s the stuff in the big middle where things get gummy. If there’s one lesson here, it’s that the presence of direct competition makes for better brands.

One structural brand solution would be for Microsoft to cultivate (and free) its edge. It’s best edge brand (Xbox) is forged and battle hardened by free market forces. That should be the model for all Microsoft brands.

A radical way to make this happen is to break Microsoft into smaller, sink-or-swim business units, with each having a larger free edge surface. That could release a tremendous amount of positive brand energy. But right now, that kind of change is absolutely probably not on the table.


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