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”?

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