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.


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