The Blog

The Impact of Brand Identity

I just read a great article by John Dvorak of PC Magazine, where he asked a couple of great questions – including “would you like the iPhone as much if it came from Redmond instead of Cupertino”. (PC Magazine – “Microsoft’s Brand Image Gets Worse – 30 March 2009). And he brings up a great point in his article. If the iPhone was a Microsoft product, rather than an Apple one – would we still love it?

He maintains, and has for years, that Microsoft has lost control of its brand image. It’s now a negative brand. Now…there could be multiple reasons for this. Negative press back in the late 90’s over the US & European government lawsuits maintaining restraint of trade, due to Internet Explorer being bundled with Windows. But, how is that different than Apple’s control over it’s software & hardware. Perhaps it’s the perspective that Bill Gates is a controlling, uber-rich geek, while Steve Jobs is just “cool”. Or, maybe it’s the failure of Windows Vista in the marketplace.

No, I think it’s something different. Apple has done a spectacular job of listening to the marketplace – and it’s customers – and building exactly what it needs. Nothing less, and nothing more. They’ve made the brand “simple”. Simple to use iPods. Simple to use operating systems. They just “work”. But, Apple has accomplished this over the years because they stayed true to a specific brand concept. Microsoft on the other hand, wanted “more”. They had the goal of owning the desktop. Microsoft would control everything – the operating system was the platform that they successfully built a business off of – that then owned the business computing space with the Office suite of tools, combined with their server technology. When they set a clear goal that meant taking the entire brand in one new direction they were very successful – and a perfect example of this was when they, almost overnight, took over ownership of the browser from Netscape.

But now, it’s too much. Their programs are bloated and heavy. They’ve tried to be all things to all people. Their operating system Vista required so much more computing power when it came out that even new systems that people had just bought couldn’t use it. With the growth of netbooks over the last 2 years, even the best netbooks can’t use Vista. Why? With the new tools to improve usability, it still had to be backward compatible with older programs – and older peripherals. When you buy a new computer, and it runs slower than your old one – and the only difference seems to be what you have on it from Microsoft – and it’s harder to use than your old software – you’re not going to end up having a good image of Microsoft’s products.

Which then translates to the brand itself. There has been the impression over the years that Microsoft’s goal was to own the business-space. And to hell with the end-user. Now, that’s not reality, but in comparison, Apple’s branding has focused on the end user – and with a clean, cohesive branding program surrounding their products, they have given the impression that they are customer-focused.

So, can Microsoft make a phone that is as good – or better – than the iPhone? Definitely. But, as long as Microsoft’s brand identity is one of “corporate monolith that creates products that don’t take the end user’s needs into account” – it’s hard to think that the public would ever believe it would be the better phone! My belief – if Microsoft wants to ever beat Apple, Google, or any Web 2.0 startup – before they focus on the product – they need to focus on their brand. The question now is – is it too late for Microsoft to do this – can we ever believe again that Microsoft is “best”?

Why the economic downturn can drive good design

We’ve just come out of a time where, let’s face it – the conspicuous consumption of the last 10 years dwarfs what we saw during the 80’s. We’ve had reality shows that show young girls being chauffered in Lamborghini’s to “sweet 16 parties” that cost the same amount of money that AIG employees got (or now, might just get taxed out of) for bonuses.

And, things moved on at such a swift pace, that as long as it was “pretty” – people would buy it. 15 years ago, who ever heard of the term, “Do you speak Prada?”. Now, with budgets scaled back, and people actually taking the time to think about what they are buying – now is actually a great time for products that are built on the concept of “form follows function”.

I’ll use Chrysler vs. Ford as one example. Both companies have, over the last 15 years, built vehicles that are attractive. But design goes beyond “pretty”. Design isn’t just how it looks – it’s how it works. Good design means you don’t have to think about how to use it – you just use it. In the most recent surveys done by Consumer Reports, had both GM and Chrysler at the bottom of the list in reliability, with Ford fourth from the bottom. (USAToday – 27 Feb 09). And, yet, both design cars such as the Dodge Viper, the Chrysler 300M, the Ford Mustang, and even the now discontinued Ford GT – that are quite attractive.

Another example is Apple products compared to…well, just about any competing product. During the downturn, Apple has introduced the new “unibody” Mac’s, the iPhone, new iPods, and now the Shuffle. Sales may have dropped a little, but to hear that Lenovo (which makes great systems, by the way) has had to lay of people at their factories in China – seems to be showing that the combination of good visual design, good ergonomic design, and good mechanical design – are what are becoming key to sales.

Basically, it’s coming down to this – if people are going to spend, they want it to last, and they want to be proud of it. Architect Sarah Susanka has been a proponent for years of smaller spaces, with money spent on the details. Over the last “boom” – the goal seemed to be to buy bigger homes – yet, not necessarily better homes. Last year, for the first time in 10 years – the average square footage of new single-family homes actually fell from 2,629 in the second quarter, to 2,343 in the fourth quarter, according to US Census Data.

We’re seeing a return to common sense. We want more out of less. We want to feel connected to what we have spent our money on. Those who produce designs that help create a long-term emotional bond to the brand, to the product, and to the company that produced them, will be the winners once we rebound out of this downturn.

Corporate Arrogance…maybe this is part of the reason the economy is having problems!

Over the course of the last few days, I’ve read a couple of different news releases and articles regarding recent company downsizings, in light of the current economic turndown. One of them concerns Microsoft. Beyond the train-wreck called Vista, it seems they keep making miss-steps that may be why they’ve announced some pretty extensive layoffs this week – 5000 employees.

One release describes  that some of these cuts include the disbanding of the ACES Studio team which is responsible for Flight Simulator, as well as other games. And another describes that even though the revenue stream from some of these games has been small, it has been positive – while the Zune player that’s designed to compete with Apple’s iPod – has been loosing money. And, we see another case of “We have to show that we’re better than XXX company – so let’s cut those areas that are profitable and use the money we save to throw at unprofitable business units!”.

I now read the following article from CNET- based on an interview with Steve Jobs when iTunes was only 8 months old:

http://tinyurl.com/bgazev

Hmmm…seems Steve was right! Now, this doesn’t mean that Steve is a genius. Yes, Steve believes in both his company, it’s products, and his ability to read the market (and understand his customer). But, that’s the point – he understands his customer! Too many companies spend their time – and their marketing efforts – on telling the customer what they need and want. But, I’d say that the most successful companies (at least for the long-term) – spend their time and efforts trying to figure out a better way to deliver to their customer what they ask for.

When you think of Apple’s designs – whether it’s an iPod, a MacBook, or the iPhone – they take the time to make sure that it’s not just “pretty” – it also delivers to the customer what they asked for.