But Microsoft doesn’t make PCs…(updated)

Pop Culture, Strategy, Updated

You’ve seen the new Crispin, Porter + Bogusky campaign for Microsoft, first the Bill Gates/Jerry Seinfeld roadshow followed by the supposed next phase of the plan, the cavalcade of real people and celebrities claiming to be “a PC.”
Can this dude make Microsoft Cool?This first came to my attention with the cover of Fast Company’s June 2008 issue that pretty clearly asks if CPB’s Alex Bogusky can make Microsoft cool. While the article itself quotes Andrew Keller, one of CPB’s co-executive creative directors saying “To try to be cool is to not be cool,” the resulting campaign does just that.

For as long as computer advertising has mattered to regular folks, in terms of dealing with personal computers and the features and benefits promised by them, Apple Computers has done one thing fairly consistently and brilliantly. It’s focused on what the personal computer could do for you and your life or, to hit it from another angle, what you could do with a computer.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has consistently approached its advertising, both product and brand, from the perspective of their products’ features, focusing on what Microsoft thought was important instead of what their potential customers might find important. The result has been advertising that talks at the customer instead of to them.

I know some folks who can’t stand the current Apple “Hi, I’m a Mac…” campaign, starring Justin Long (DODGEBALL, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD) and John Hodgman (THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART). They dislike Long and the ad campaign (and Apple by logical extension) because of the snobby attitude supposedly presented in the ads.

I think the ads are pretty careful to present a laidback “Mac” who strives to make love not war. I was surprised to see Apple and their agency initially attempt the very risky proposition of characterizing not only their product but their customer base and that of the people they want to convert to their side with actual characters named “Mac” and “PC.” If the reader or viewer disagrees with the characterization, the ads fail.

It seems to have worked wonderfully, due in large part to the execution of the ads and the important distinction that the ads were only personifying the computers, not the users. Plus, part of the cleverness of the campaign is that you feel sorry for…the PC.

But these ads were also doing something very distinct and new in Apple advertising. They spoke specifically to PC users, letting them know that their favorite programs now work flawlessly on Macs and that Macs are way easier to deal with than their current PCs. This campaign directly attacked the notion of continuing to work or play on a PC when life could be so much better on a Mac.

What the Apple ads didn’t do is target Microsoft.

What the Apple ads didn’t do is target Microsoft. Yes, Microsoft has an enormous presence in every PC on the planet, providing the Office triumvirate of Word, Excel and Powerpoint as well as Internet Explorer, the favorite browser of web developers around the world (…to hate). This is also due to Microsoft’s heavy-handed business strategies that are now legend, forcing its way into each and every PC sold, to the exclusion of other, sometimes better, products. (Netscape anyone?)

Despite this, Microsoft is not Dell, Gateway, HP/Compaq, IBM or Sony. It does not manufacture personal computers. It makes software. The argument could be that Apple makes the hardware and the operating system that makes such a big difference to the overall product and so, the comparison is direct. But that’s still no reason for Microsoft to take such public umbrage and…blink. Yes, Apple has clearly targeted Microsoft’s troubled Vista launch in their ads, but not exclusively. And that really is a problem with Vista, not all of Microsoft or PC users.

Which makes this attempt by Crispin, Porter + Bogusky with their multi-stage ad campaign just befuddling. It’s as if Microsoft fell for the joke where someone asks you Just how long has it been since you stopped beating your wife?!?

So far, what these ads have communicated to those who find themselves in front of them is 1.) Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld are not regular folks (despite how nice and wonderful they may be in real life or over a glass of beer) and B.) millions of different kinds of people happily use PCs (but that might be due to cost, not choice). Add to that the niggling fact that these ads look so much like other ubiquitous (and yes, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky produced) ads on the air and the result is underwhelmingly tepid.

But what about Microsoft’s troubled line of varied products? These ads seem, at best, to be trying to make Microsoft relevant by pure association instead of by a clear point of difference, the quality of its product. Probably for a good reason. That doesn’t eliminate the fact that there has to be some real point of difference that Microsoft could and should be pointing to with their advertising.

It’s a strange balancing act to talk to your customers about your latest innovations or your point of difference while sounding and behaving as if you’re really more interested in your customers. But it’s the balance that all good advertising strikes.

If I were the creative director on the brand advertising for Microsoft, I would position Microsoft as that boring but dependable uncle. I would eliminate any attempts to make Microsoft and any of its products seem awe-inspiring or able to make people fly. I would focus on what Microsoft does well which is to be ubiquitous and (somewhat) dependable. I would make it the new IBM (of the ’70s).

But this campaign just tries to make a not cool product cool by acting cool.


Check out the first news item, “RIP Vista.”