Friday, September 19, 2008

A Brand About Nothing

I heard the reports a while back about a new Microsoft ad campaign featuring Jerry Seinfeld, and even as someone who still genuinely looks forward to watching him and laughing every night at 11 - I have to say I didn't get it. His show was peppered with product plugs and placements, but I guess I don't really see Jerry as a particularly impactful pitchman. Especially now. Especially endorsing a past-its-prime technology behemoth like Microsoft. Especially standing next to Bill Gates.

The first commercial came out and, as many have observed, didn't make any sense. Nothing explicit in relation to the core product, the funniest thing in it was the family standing outside the shoe store speaking in Spanish - about shoes. "Don't worry," we were collectively told by the mouthpieces out of Redmond, "it's a build, we're starting a conversation, the relevance will come." Fair enough.

Second spot broke, long-form engagement with Jerry and Bill living with a regular family, doing regular things, being amusing and... regular. It still didn't make much sense to me, but you could sort of see the start of something, a new template and objective emerging. Bill Gates (Microsoft) as a fish-out-of-water that eventually becomes the water, or at least pimps the technology that enables the water, with a popular comedian along for the ride as the Merlin character, Bill's trusted partner and guide.

Shortly after seeing that second spot I read a really interesting piece in the Economist that basically reached the conclusion that this little campaign might just be genius, and could actually succeed, by - believe it or not - leveraging the halo and goodwill generated by the lovable PC Guy in Apple's tremendous and long-lived "Get a Mac" campaign.

People genuinely like PC Guy, he's pathetic and self-effacing and makes us laugh, and as Steve Jobs himself has pointed out, PC Guy is the one who makes those commercials work. Mac is the straight man, the Bud Abbott to Lou Costello, Bert to Ernie, Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis, and - as the Economist observed - which one would you rather have dinner with? OK, fine, throw Dean and Jerry out of the analogy.

After reading that piece, I started to understand. "People love PC Guy," the pitch to Microsoft must have gone, "so here's what we'll do. We'll turn Bill Gates into a real-life version of this lovable character. We'll get him a charming and endearing national treasure type to pal around with - someone with humor and a no-nonsense edge, and after spending about $300 million America will rekindle its love affair with the PC and with that great old technology company that first set out to put a computer on every desk and in every home. Microsoft will cease to be an enormous and uncaring android monolith, it will be accessible, human, even nurturing - and Bill Gates as an even more authentic version of PC Guy will get us there."

As a die-hard Apple evangelist and Mac enthusiast, the viability of the premise gave me some pause. Because there is an undercurrent of people out there - Red Staters mostly, is my guess - who maybe feel a bit put off by the minimalist products being cranked out by those fancy schmancy people out there in KOO-Per-TEENO, who maybe thought Justin Long was just a little too smug and sure of himself for his own good, even after being dumped by Drew Barrymore. Write them off if you want, but these people win elections, and they are ripe to be mobilized. Think Revenge Of The Nerds: Flyover State Edition.

I'm not saying it was time for panic in Mac-land or anything, but there was definitely some potential there. If you move beyond the uncommonly beautiful, insanely functional, easy-to-use and rock-solid reliable qualities of the devices Apple makes, Microsoft more or less has green fields and unencumbered open road ahead of it.

But then somebody panicked, and they canceled the campaign, at least the Seinfeld piece of it, as suddenly as it had arrived. There were some comments about maybe bringing him back down the road, but let's get real - Jerry's cashed the check and is already focused on finding a parking space for his next car. The PR people tried to spin the redirection as some kind of grand plan, which didn't play with anyone. In the end, Kramer almost lasted longer at that company that never really hired him than Jerry did with Microsoft.

They threw up something that looked a lot like a contingency approach, probably one of the things the agency considered or pitched along the way, with an ugly and even dorkier "real" version of John Hodgman (the revelation of the first "new" spot was that there actually is someone working at Microsoft who looks like that) saying that he's a PC and he's been turned into a stereotype. The lament was followed by a string of people - with the requisite familiar face or two thrown in - claiming to share that same proud designation. I'm sorry, I forget, remind me again why I care that Eva Longoria supposedly considers herself a PC?

Who can tell where this will go, or what they'll wind up trying next, but there's one thing crystal clear at this point - these people don't know what they're doing, have no idea how to define, or redefine, their brand, or to appeal to consumers on a broad scale that is organic and makes sense. This is problematic, particularly in the wake of the Vista disaster. Their core business is under assault on all sides and being trumped by a variety of fresher-faced competitors, both new and old; their attempt to attack the core competency that turned Apple around (portable music players) is laughable; and Bill Gates waxes poetic in public forums about the payoff that is coming by virtue of Microsoft's pioneering work in robotics software. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Still and all, I'll place my wager (and focus my attention) on the wild scene of diverse and enthusiastic humanity I saw in the 5th Avenue Apple store in NYC earlier this week. Bill - you can keep the robots.


Blogger Becky said...

Yeah, those What were they thinking? Thoughtful post. Thanks.

7:55 PM  

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