A critical lesson in product branding
I remember the first time I heard about the Microsoft laptop. It was on Bloomberg TV. And even though they said all these beautiful things about the device, I just couldn’t shake away the feeling that something was fundamentally wrong with this product. It looked perfect, it was acclaimed a product genius by some but within me I knew there was something off about a laptop named Microsoft.
This was not the first time something would feel off about a Microsoft product. This was not just about Microsoft as other major tech companies make this anomaly often. But I chose Microsoft here because their case makes the anomaly quite glaring and easy to notice. The first issue was a Microsoft phone. As far as I was concerned I felt it was an attempt to challenge Android and iOS. Honestly, it was a welcomed challenge and an option to phone users. The campaign for it was quite strong and that got the sales going. I even thought of getting a Microsoft phone just for variety. But then everybody’s mobile I’d like to communicate with seems to speak Android, why make it hard for my phone to relate? Plus my sister got a Microsoft phone, she wished she had an Android instead.
I don’t know how much the phone thrived, but I know it wasn’t anywhere close to the two front runners. Even when BlackBerry threw in the towel, I don’t think Microsoft gained any edge from that. What was wrong with the Microsoft phone? We’ll get there soon. Here comes the Microsoft laptop. What was Microsoft thinking? And more importantly, what is Microsoft thinking? With what I see them doing, I don’t get their game plan. The lady that day on Bloomberg TV who showcased the laptop said it was coming as a competition to the Mac. Perhaps their thinking is to give people who want a Mac another option. But Apple doesn’t have customers, Apple has fans. Most people want Apple products not because it is better but because it is Apple. They know what Apple stands for and want to be a part of it. So, if the purpose of the Microsoft laptop is to compete with Apple, the game is over before it even started.
The number one mistake I believe Microsoft made and are yet to correct is the fact that their hardware product go with the brand name; Microsoft. There is something about Microsoft that speaks software. This is registered unconsciously in the minds of people. It is rhythmically wrong for an hardware to be called Microsoft. Over the years we have known Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc. Microsoft has been too branded with software that it becomes absurd when we see hardware with the name. This is why I believe Microsoft should stop calling their hardware Microsoft.
I know you would say that the Microsoft laptop is actually called Surface. But I found out that only Microsoft calls it Surface. Every other person calls it Microsoft laptop, Microsoft Surface, etc. Whatever name they call it, Microsoft is there. Why? The reason is simply because the logo on it is clearly one known as Microsoft. It looks Microsoft and because of that it is Microsoft. We got familiar with that logo when we turned on the computer. It speaks software to us. This is why I believe the logo will always thrive with whatever software product but will struggle with hardware products.
Have you observed that Windows is not called Microsoft Windows. This is because Windows is not a software program, it is an OS. For it to be called Microsoft Windows would make it sound like another software program like Excel, Word, etc. We know that Microsoft owns Windows because the logo makes it obvious, but the purpose of Windows is clear because it is isolated from the word ‘Microsoft’. Are there other examples? Yes! Did you know that Microsoft owns Xbox? In case you don’t know, they do. It is called Xbox. Imagine, if it was called Microsoft Xbox. It just sounds so wrong! Or imagine the Microsoft logo on Xbox. No! The Xbox has its own logo, it is a brand of its own. In fact, I doubt if people who own Xbox know that Microsoft is the parent company. And it gives a kind of shield to the Microsoft brand such that if something is wrong with the Xbox, the direct outrage on Microsoft is significantly lesser than if it was a Microsoft phone.
There are things that looks simple and trivial that are very connected to the success of a venture or company. Branding is one of those things. Branding is not just about having a good name, it’s particularly about building a consistent narrative of identity. There is a way that things get registered in our minds. For example, whenever you hear the word ‘Amazon’, what comes to the average mind? It’s shopping! If Amazon wants to go into an industry or field that has nothing to do with shopping, it’s better they create another brand for it. I know they are all trying to reinvent their brand (that is, all major tech companies) by going into other fields with their already established brands. If it’s an uncharted territory, it’s okay. But if not, the marketing department will have to do double work and it’ll still be kind of awkward.
Branding is identity and it has to be a consistent narrative to be effective
Nobody understands this like the auto industry. Do you know that the same group that owns Bentley owns Audi? Why didn’t they combine it together? Or call it by the name of the parent company; Volkswagen? It is very important to brand right. In today’s world, people own for more than just functionality. If I were highly placed in Microsoft, I would create an hardware brand and build its credibility strong, isolated from the Microsoft brand, define an identity and a purpose for the brand, push it among social circles, capture the hearts of the young generation with it, can even go as far as naming a president for the brand that is a smart and likable 16 year old. People would think it’s a startup with lots of money but then if they investigate they would realize its Microsoft. And the value of Microsoft will shoot up just by the fact that they have a new brand.
Sometimes what a company needs is not another product or service. What they need is just to connect more deeply with the social world. There is a way to win the argument before the talking starts. The way is proper branding.