25 Oct 2008
Microsoft's "Windows without Walls" Ads
In 2006, Apple began an excellent set of ads called “Get a Mac”. They’re an excellent example of a #2 company repeatedly attacking a #1 company. Classic marketing books like Positioning by Ries and Trout highlight how important it is for companies like Apple to directly attack Microsoft, just as Pepsi attacked Coca-Cola and Avis attacked Hertz. Apple has grown its US PC market share to 10%, but Microsoft continues to dominate the rest of the market. It’s a smart, brilliantly executed advertising strategy. You can watch most of the ads on Apple’s website.
Microsoft is the 800-pound gorilla of the computer industry. And yet, they have done a surprisingly bad job at advertising. Vista was years late in launching, and the best ad they could come up with was “Wow”. More recently, they took a different tactic: the Mojave Experiment, where they initially tricked a group of people into thinking they were looking at a prototype OS, before revealing that the OS was Vista. Both seem like wastes of money. Apple needs to advertise to convince the public to buy something other than Windows; Microsoft doesn’t need to convince people to buy Windows, just as Google and Amazon don’t advertise their main services.
Microsoft does have the capacity for brilliance. Two years ago, an internal marketing video was posted to YouTube, entitled “Microsoft iPod”. The video was supposed to make the larger marketing department wake up and start selling elegance, and it was so popular on the web because it succinctly contrasted Microsoft’s approach to product marketing with Apple’s approach. They’re self-aware of their weaknesses, but they haven’t changed.
All of which brings me to Microsoft’s latest misstep. In September, the company decided to spend $300M on a set of ads called “Windows without Walls”. They began with two spots with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld; it was reported that they paid Seinfeld $10M for his role. These ads succeeded in getting a lot of media attention. They were quirky and pointless, and I assume both were intentional. But it’s believed that Microsoft prematurely ended this series because of the publicity, and they transitioned to ads directly acknowledging Apple’s ads. A real Microsoft employee (who looks remarkably like Apple’s PC caricature) starts it off by saying, “I’m a PC, and I’ve been made into a stereotype,” and then a whole slew of PC users say variants of “I’m a PC”. The only redeeming quality of the ads is the real people they show. While Apple took a great idea and executed it well, Microsoft had multiple ideas and executed them badly in concert. They directly addressed Apple’s ads and tried to defend themselves by getting real people to read from a script. Microsoft shouldn’t have acknowledged Apple or its ads at all. Politicians don’t address issues the opponent brings up; they change the subject to ones where they shine. Apple now has new ads poking fun at Microsoft’s ad campaign.
So I wondered what I would do in Microsoft’s position. I have $300M to spend on advertising and well-known products that have well-known issues. Simple: let the people tell defend us. Microsoft had the right idea using real people in their ads. They just executed the idea badly. The company shouldn’t try to manage the story. Instead, just let people tell their own stories, and turn the best into ads. Microsoft should have made a game out of it: “$1K for 1K”. Anyone can upload a 15-second or 30-second video to MSN Video (since Microsoft probably doesn’t want these on YouTube). Anyone can vote on them. Microsoft will pick the best (not necessarily the highest voted) and turn them into TV and web ads. Anyone whose video gets picked gets $1K. I’m sure there is a price point around there to convince Windows lovers to pick up a camera and shoot 15 seconds.
The key is to focus on real people. Let them talk about what they like. Let them acknowledge problems, perhaps as reasonable solutions to difficult problems. Apple’s ads can talk about viruses because the Windows install base is a larger vector than Mac OS X’s. Some portion of the videos would probably attack Apple, pointing out these realities, like a small market share. The ad campaign would cost 10% of what Seinfeld cost, and yet it would be far more effective at putting a human face on the global brand. Moreover, just as Apple’s ads scale well in terms of subject matter, Microsoft’s ads could focus on any feature with a video to address it or any product they sell, like Office or Exchange.
Microsoft wants to appear more human. The solution to that is not hiring Seinfeld or handing regular people a three-word script. Give people an outlet, and I think they’ll surprise you. Let them be the face of Microsoft.