Can Microsoft redefine their brand?
Chris Capossela, Chief Marketing Officer at Microsoft, is probably betting against his job that it can. In fact, if he and his team can’t get the world to see Microsoft in a new light, then the company itself may be in for some very turbulent times. At Convergence 2015 Chris took the stage and laid out a six-point plan of marketing actions Microsoft and its partners are looking to use to bolster their upcoming brand reinvigoration. The ideas were sound, and his delivery was inspiring, but as he spoke I found a particular pragmatic cynicism enveloped each of his talking points. With each new talking point, idea of consumers embracing a ‘new’ Microsoft felt very compelling. However, the reality that very few companies have executed a successful pivot this late in their existence still loomed over his speech, like knowing HR is waiting until 5:00 to fire you.
While Chris seems to have a mountain of a mission ahead of him, as I mentioned before, his new strategy hand picks successful approaches and then applies them to Microsoft. In theory, this should work.
Before Microsoft can even begin to market, like any other business, they need something to market around. Microsoft needs a clear message. Microsoft may be synonymous with productivity and PCs (more enterprise/mainframe computing), but their consumer facing messaging has been a collage of hits and misses. According to Chris, he and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took a lot of time to understand what Microsoft’s messaging will be going forward. They landed on ‘Empowering’. This is the notion of Microsoft solutions empowering both consumers and enterprise in their respective fields. Microsoft wants to serve and help “empower” everyone. Chris believes that Microsoft needs to do better in places like Indonesia, India or South Korea where their products have not become necessary to some. The empowering attention Microsoft is paying to develop markets dovetails into Microsoft's biggest gamble yet, Freemium.
Freemium Innovation, say what?
The pivotal component to Microsoft’s new strategy and brand recognition hinges on what Chris labels as Freemium Innovation. While Microsoft is not quite ready to cut their licensing model cold turkey, they are acknowledging the changing landscape of services and technology. As companies like Google are also offering similar services at no cost, and Apple can afford to bury their R&D cost into their devices, a licensing model seem antiquated in respect. Microsoft wants to foster engagement in their ecosystem through free tiers to their services. Similar to a successful smartphone game or a drug dealer, Microsoft wants consumers to engage genuinely with Microsoft services for free but offer a premium experience behind a paywall. “Rather than using Skype just on Sunday night to phone home, you’re using Skype for messaging, 15, 20, 30 times every single day. That’s engagement.” Says Chris. Arise dark cloud of cynicism.
Perhaps Microsoft has metrics and telemetry to the contrary, but some people develop an unhealthy addiction to free. People will change their user behavior to accommodate free. Instead of paying for a single, one-stop-shop office suite, some people would rather venture into a daisy chain of apps with time-consuming formatting issues so that they don’t have to pay. Chris acknowledges this pain point to some degree, “And then we’re going to come up with some level of service that some people will be willing to pay for, but the notion is your total number of users will be far, far larger than the number of users who actually pay you for the service, and it’s just an incredible change to the classic Microsoft business model.” Luckily for Microsoft’s pocketbooks, their little side project, Azure, seems to be taking off.
Build marketing into products or better yet, connect the dots
Another change occurring in Microsoft's marketing may be a bigger deal than what Microsoft’s message is or isn’t saying, even greater than giving away software. Microsoft's need to utilize the connectivity of their products. Chris admits that Google and Apple are doing a better job of saving their marketing dollars by connecting their offerings to their primary drivers. “If you look at what Apple advertises on TV, at least in the U.S., it’s all iPhone and iPad. And yet you see all the lines that connect their ecosystem. They can focus their marketing dollars on a very small number of things, be very disciplined, but because they’ve engineered their things to work together, one product naturally leads to the next product without any marketing at all; very efficient marketing to build your marketing into your products.”
In the near future, Chris suggest that Microsoft will see their “disciplined,” marketing dollars go into business drivers like the Surface Pro 3 (next Surface Pro lines) and Cortana. With the Surface Pro 3 being the visual “locomotive” for Microsoft, they can focus their marketing on the device and let it sell OneNote, Office, Windows 10, Xbox Music, etc. The same approach is being taken with Cortana. Chris would like to market Cortana as a conduit to unsuspecting Bing holdouts. Instead of the siloed approach to search box engagement, having Cortana in everything from Xbox to your PC should be an easier way to win over a Google user rather than directing them to Bing.com.
Storytelling may or may not be a trend in marketing right now, but it is something the competition is quickly excelling at while Microsoft is still trying to get its footing. While Apple has done a remarkable job at its storytelling over the years, Chris is addressing a much broader idea of storytelling. He highlights that as big as Apple is, they don’t have a Twitter account nor a Facebook page. Their stories are relayed through the people who use the products. Unfortunately, a lot of those people are in the tech media, and thus we end up with the rinse and repeat cycle of Apple news often. Moving forward, Chris explains that Microsoft needs to take control of their storytelling. Some may think back to the astroturfing claims against Microsoft some years ago, but Chris is talking about finding the right avenues to tell real stories. Taking the technology out of a story to showcase the real world usefulness of a product. Microsoft is already building low-cost websites (Microsoft Stories) to showcase long form experiences and stories from real people who are using Microsoft services and products. The inherent value in this approach almost seemed like a no-brainer.
“We’ve also learned to do our own storytelling rather than using the press. I think for a long time we just thought about the press as the only way we can reach the masses. You’ve got to get that New York Times article, or you’ve got to Walt Mossberg to write about the Surface, or whatever. And those are still fine avenues to go down, but a few years ago we started a website called Microsoft.com/stories, Microsoft Stories, and we just started telling stories on that site. It costs us about $5,000 to tell each story. They’re very long. They’re long-form digital stories with video and audio and photos, beautifully told. We have about five people who work on it full-time, two writers and the three other people that make this all happen. It’s built on Microsoft.com, no additional real money for every one of these stories.”
Chris finished his presentation on what should have been his opening line, “OK. The last thing I wanted to talk about is just the role of the Microsoft brand, and we as a company, I think, have had a long history of really favoring our product brands over our company brands.” This acknowledgment is succinct to what many feel is Mircosoft’s biggest hurdle. Microsoft gets in the way of Microsoft. Sure their timing is off (cough *Zune* cough) and their products need a bit of a refinement period. But some of Microsoft’s biggest missteps happen when the company feels the need to promote each of their products endlessly as if they are their separate companies.
In Chris’ new marketing plan, it looks like the company is putting an end to this convoluted brand representation. Surprisingly the simple 'Microsoft' brand still holds a bit of cachet among consumers. Chris explains, “We introduced the new Microsoft logo just two-and-a-half years ago and now we do unaided awareness surveys that tell us, hey, if we put this four-colored symbol in front of consumers how many of them say that’s Microsoft. We’re up to 67 percent globally in just two-and-a-half years. We’ll look at that four-colored symbol and say that’s Microsoft. In the commercial space it’s higher. It’s in the 80s and 90s and it’s even higher than the old logo, despite that existing for about 18 years. So we see that really take hold. The brand is just quite strong.”
Moving forward, consumers will engage with Microsoft products and services simply through Microsoft. Instead of the mess of trademarks and registered symbols, they’ll have product names, within the One Microsoft logo. The Microsoft logo, a simple four square logo, will be found on products like Surface Hub, HoloLens, and their upcoming Windows Phone flagships.
Much of this sounds impressive, if Chris and his team at Microsoft can execute it correctly. Unfortunately, history isn’t on Microsoft’s side when it comes to change, transition, or marketing, all of which the company needs to do in order to secure itself a future as a viable enterprise and consumer brand. But, we shall see this time around.