Brand Rehab Award: Microsoft

25 06 2008

The Brand Rehab award is given weekly to the brand most deserving of assistance based on current events and ‘popular opinion’, determined by Sarah Trafford, an Account Executive with Mullen PR.

A recent Fast Company cover story on Microsoft’s re-brand caught my attention, and not just because I work in the communications industry. The author says this about the recent unwinding of the powerful brand:

Over the past couple of years, Microsoft’s already problematic reputation in some circles — as the soulless, power-hungry purveyor of lackluster products — has suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds. It spent two years and $500 million on the media blitz around the long-delayed Windows Vista launch, only to see the January 2007 “Wow” campaign, which likened Microsoft’s new operating system to Woodstock and the fall of the Berlin Wall, derided as arrogant and creatively void. Vista itself sold poorly, leading to price cuts of up to 40%. Worst of all, the flop bred a new generation of Microsoft haters. “Microsoft has really lost control of its image,” says Rob Enderle, an influential advisory analyst for tech companies including Dell, HP, and Microsoft.

One of the reasons this article caught my eye was not because it highlighted an unusual brand or even a personal interest (I’m not particularly charmed by terms like operating system and motherboard)– but because this is one of the first times I have seen significant coverage of the ailing brand. (Significant coverage in this definition is outside of industry rags). Although many will say that the problem isn’t the brand but the product–and that Microsoft’s recent Vista failure has hurt it more than the Mac vs. PC ads– Microsoft would benefit greatly from some positive non-traditional PR right about now. My suggestions for that are threefold.

1) Band together your loyalists. Find the tech-ies who swear by Microsoft over Apple (and there are many) and gather them together for a PR stunt of some sort–on a large scale. Maybe a sit-in for better operating systems? If Microsoft is the brand of the pocket protector, while Apple is beauty over substance, use that to the advantage of the brand! People love nerds when they are right about something (think the “mathletes” from Mean Girls, not Revenge of the Nerds).

2) Get the whispers going. Leak new brand strategy “accidentally” . Make it all about niche subjects that niche media will pick up– celebrities, pets, meta media, and everything in-between, to reach as many touch points as possible– but all in a sneak-attack/ rumor-mill manner. People love to the be the first to know. Make Microsoft the subject of gossip, and people will take ownership of it. Intertwine their lives with the brand before the rebrand is even launched.

3) Make it pretty. When you finally DO launch the re-brand of Microsoft (or maybe launch an arm of Microsoft named for some sort of fruit, strategically the reverse of the Mac launch in 1984), make it pretty. Make it pretty enough to be easily placed on the covers of all the national magazines, and make it prettier and better and more user-friendly than a Mac. If something is visually appealing, it’s naturally going to get more airtime–and Microsoft hasn’t been pretty since its “Start me up!” Windows 95 campaign.

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Yahoo!’s Yang Earns His !

4 06 2008

Exclamation points should be reserved for the rarest of occasions and the unfortunate use of that little bugger after Yahoo!’s name has been a point of consternation to me. But today, I grant Jerry Yang, the 39 year-old CEO of Yahoo!, the right to use ! with impunity.

Why the sudden change of heart?

Yesterday I read that two Detroit pension funds are suing Yahoo! over its failed deal with Microsoft because they claim the proposed compensation plan in the last proposal was too expensive. That is funny on so many levels. The pension funds contend that the plan creates an “incentive for massive employee walkout,” as though we’re talking about a Teamsters strike in a Miller brewing plant.

Yang, it seems, had the foresight and smarts to develop a plan that would protect the interests of his employees in the event the deal was inked. Now this is leadership.

Yang should be applauded for looking out for the best interests of his people if their jobs are diminished or eliminated—and even more curiously—if they leave on their own accord. Imagine Microsoft having to keep folks on board after a deal—or worse—having to keep them happy so they hang around. What would Wall Street say?

I’m Maria Lachapelle, SVP at Mullen PR; I cut my teeth doing communications for M&As in NYC during the 1990s. It wasn’t unusual for management teams to spend the majority of their time working with us to explain the positives of the business combination, but only 10 minutes at 2 in the morning deciding the fate of tens of thousands of employees.

Here’s why Yang’s plan is good business for both Yahoo! and Microsoft. As soon as they smell blood in the water, Yahoo!’s best strategists, technicians, sales & marketing folks—who are eminently marketable—will jump ship, probably going to competitor Google. Nervous employees look for other jobs. Take that worry out of the equation and they stay focused on performing, competing, being the best.

And now that heavyweights Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens are threatening to oust Yang for sticking to his guns on the plan, the communications teams at Microsoft might want to take care that Yahoo!’s talent pool doesn’t exit along with Yang.

What role do you think CEOs should play in protecting their employees when inking deals?