Friday, July 22, 2005

Microsoft Limits Its Vista Branding

This week, Microsoft announced that it will apparently name its new operating system 'Windows Vista,' setting aside the 'longhorn' code name it used while in development. Keith Regan, writing for the E-Commerce Times, sent me a few questions to answer about Microsoft's latest venture, which I thought would make interesting reading.

Q: Microsoft announced that it will apparently name its new operating system 'Windows Vista,' setting aside the 'longhorn' code name it used while in development. Is this an important branding decision, or will the software sales be unaffected by the name given to it?

Rob: Completely, totally unaffected. This is yet another example of how (and I don't mean to be as brutal as it sounds) clueless Microsoft is about branding. Sure, they have high awareness. And yes, they are the most successful brand in the category. But if you look at what a brand's mission is, you'll see that there are far fewer Microsoft evangelists than they ought to have. Most users, in fact, are quite easy to convert from Microsoft products and a significant number use MS products only because they're required to do so.

Fact is, even MS users refer to Microsoft as "the dark side." Slapping a butterfly on a package or re-naming a development project has absolutely no short or long term effects. It actually reveals how weak the Microsoft branding strategy and executions are. No credibility. No follow through. No public perception. So this won't have any effect on sales. None. At all.

Q: Is Vista a good brand name?

Rob: No, because it lacks credibility and reeks of "consensus," which again is typical of corporate decision making at companies like Microsoft. It's not fair to pick on them, because most companies in America are in exactly the same situation. To put it in perspective, this decision smacks of what a committee thinks won't offend the public, rather than leading with a concept that will inspire them. Contrast this to Apple's code names: Panther, Tiger, Jaguar. The former is gray, politically-correct, dull. The latter is ready to pounce.

Q: Does it create the right image for Microsoft?

Rob: Frankly - and I go into this in my book - it actually does more to illustrate Microsoft's lack of branding ability than anything else. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, the truth is that Microsoft has never had a brand strategy. You can't find two people who will evangelize Microsoft the same way. There is no Microsoft culture that can be shared.

As a result, because of its lack of brand leadership, Microsoft has allowed the public to shape its brand for them. Big mistake. The entire brand perception of Microsoft is out of control and clearly, Microsoft is unable to rein it in.

Like most companies, Microsoft makes the mistake of equating awareness and market share with brand strength. As I said, that makes their company successful, but not their brand.

Q: What are the stakes when it comes to choosing a product name and what factors go into such a decision?

Rob: They can be pretty big, if you know how to play the game, because they should be setting up expectations that the brand can deliver. The key is basing the name in the brand strategy so that the product is recognized as yet another delivery on the brand promise. Even the military does this when they name their operations: defensive missions are named differently from surgical strikes, with each name designed to inspire the motivation behind the effort.

Typically - and especially with brand-less companies like Microsoft - the decision is made from a reactive, rather than pro-active, point of view. That means they pursue the options least objectionable, rather than those which make bold statements. Bold leadership is what inspires brand strength.

As I often write, "If you don't lead, they can't follow." A corollary is also true: if you don't lead, people make it up as they go along. Your brand's identity may grow, but for all the wrong reasons, setting up expectations that can't possibly be fulfilled.

"Vista" is just another example of the world's most powerful software company exhibiting its lack of branding sophistication, which is too bad. If they had that branding ability, they could also be the world's most loved software company.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Hilton's Perverted Brand

I do a fair amount of work the media, mainly from reporters who want a perspective on brands in the news. If it's not one brand's crisis, it's another brand's success. Increasingly, I'm finding the stories taking on a different light:

Brand Perversion.

Before you get too hopped up, I should tell you that brand perversion is concerned less with drooling, lecherous white men than it is about favorite, long-standing brands being co-opted for short-term gain and long-term destruction. One of my favorites, recently suggested by a reader, has been the Hilton brand...or what's left of it.

The big question on everyone's lips these days is not about Hilton's hotels, but the effect one Paris Hilton has had on the brand itself. Has she helped? Has she hurt? What's the deal with her, anyway? So let me begin by explaining that Paris Hilton has had no effect on the Hilton brand at all. I can say this with utmost confidence for the following reasons:

First, and certainly least importantly, if you know anything about the Hiltons, you would also know that they're not exactly bible-toting, card-carrying Catholic fundamentalists when it comes to sex, prurience and that kind of fun.

One quick check of your history books will tell you that Conrad Hilton's sons, Barron and Nicky, were both rich playboys whose fascination with celebrity sex included marriages to Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively. Both actresses were far less notable for their acting talents than they were for their ability to fill out a tight-fitting dress, if you get my drift. Clearly the star-sucker gene swims freely in the Hilton gene pool. Paris is just one more from a clan of attention whores. In fact, the only difference between Paris and her predecessors is that instead of reading about what they did in newspaper gossip columns, we get to download and watch it on our personal computers.

The question remains, however, what impact has all this carnal gaeity had on the Hilton brand itself? After all, it's been over half a century and the Hilton name is still among the top brands recalled for hotels throughout the world.

The answer, unfortunately, is "not much." Fact is, the Hilton brand -- like so many others -- has been severely affected by Caretaker Management Syndrome, in which executives charged with maintaining the brand have absolutely no idea how to maintain it. Although Hilton's bygone management once made a valiant attempt at establishing and maintaining its brand, those days are long gone. What began as a focused, premium-value brand proposition has languished over the years, a rudderless ship drifting on the open seas of incompetence. Hilton has had no brand strategy since the 1980's, when in one last, admirable attempt, it strove to become known as "America's Business Address." It wasn't a bad idea.

The thinking was that the economy was bad, which meant the less reliable leisure travelers were staying home in droves. Following the airlines' lead, Hilton decided to adopt the 80/20 rule, figuring that business travel was the most stable market they could go after. They almost did it. A pro-business position actually was more reliable, not to mention deliverable: Installing business centers with communications equipment and trained staffs was easy (and inexpensive) to implement.

You have to remember that this was long before anyone could even pronounce the word "internet". The fax machine was considered state of the art and word processors still had years to go before being replaced with personal computers. The "America's Business Address" strategy made sense, too, because it had built-in brand-compatible partners: airlines. Together with the major carriers, Hilton could become part of the total business travel package. In fact, everything was going Hilton's way until the one, most unexpected thing that could happen, actually did happen:

The American economy began its unprecedented decades of economic growth.

With Ronald Reagan's inauguration, the world sat up and took notice that change was coming. Reagan (now THERE'S a killer brand if ever there was one) endured a year or two of economic difficulty, after which the nation rode a rocket of both confidence and performance the likes of which it had never seen. Within a few years, people started traveling again, and Hilton, salivating over the new growth in consumer spending, dropped its pro-business brand strategy like a hot brick to go after the dollars being burned by Mr. and Mrs. Whitebread America.

So much for Hilton being the Playground of the Stars or America's Business Address.

It's been decades since Hilton created, established or implemented a brand strategy to replace the one it dumped. As a result, today nobody knows why they should -- or shouldn't -- stay at a Hilton hotel. Once again, they know the Hilton name, but they don't know why the Hilton brand is "the only solution to their problem," other than that she REALLY knows how to treat a man.

If you get my drift.