by Jonathan Rothwell

Microsoft's cancerous marketing

It’s amongst the things we take for granted every day, as facts of life: the sky is blue, bears shit in woods, trains get delayed, and Microsoft’s abysmal attempts at marketing its products fall flat on their arse.

The Borg’s attempts at advertising its products have never been much cop. It starts from the very beginning: consider names such as Xbox and Zune. Both names seem designed by a committee to tick as many ‘trendy’ and ‘edgy’ boxes as possible. The former has been successful, through a string of wildly popular game titles. The latter has not.

Once Microsoft has managed to produce a product, its attempts to get people to buy it are similarly poor. Remember the baffling adverts for Windows which featured Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld?1 The actual product being advertised was not mentioned once.

A similar problem can be seen today, with the brilliant but commercially-floundering Windows Phone platform. Nokia have performed a successful advertising blitz in the UK and mainland Europe, and their Lumia phones seem to be selling very well: they’re not setting the world on fire, by any means, but critically, they show that Windows Phones can sell.

On the other hand, the US launch of the Lumia 900 was marked by an ill-advised joint advertising campaign that declared the “smartphone beta test” to be over.2 This is similar to Samsung’s odd, passive-aggressive ad campaigns pillorying iPhone users as hopeless wannabe ‘creatives’: it effectively says to the customer, “you are an idiot for buying Brand X. If you buy Brand Y instead, you will cease to be an idiot.”

This is not good advertising. Calling potential customers losers or idiots is a way to alienate them. The actual phone appears for fifteen seconds of the one-minute advertisement.

Compare this to a far better attempt at advertising the Lumia 800 in the UK. This particular advert is a minute of close-up shots of the phone, its UI, abstract descriptions of its main features. In many ways, it’s like a groovier, more upbeat version of Apple’s advertisements for its iPhone: the phone is the star of the advert, allowed to speak for itself, and sell itself.

Not all Windows Phone marketing attempts in the UK have been as good. This is epitomised by the ‘into by Windows Phone’ programme, whose name makes about as much grammatical sense as a peashooter decapitate a an apostrophe in woods of back. ‘into’ is a ‘social rewards programme’: according to Microsoft’s blog post on the topic from November last year,

Whatever you’re into, into by Windows Phone will bring it closer to you and the people that matter to you through a series of incredible one-off experiences, amazing events and some very special offers. All of these will be centred around the things we love the most in life – from food and travel, to music and film and even technology.

Basically, it seems, ‘into by Windows Phone’ is an umbrella term for musical concerts that Microsoft sticks gaudy Windows Phone logos all over. And this neatly sums up the problem.

Microsoft has an image problem, and it knows that. However, instead of trying to fix it by showing off the products, which is, ultimately, what matters, it’s trying desperately to make itself appear ‘hip’ and ‘trendy.’

Maybe they’re trying to ape the success Apple has had with its iTunes Festivals? Perhaps. But ultimately, the cardinal sin in any kind of advertising is to forget the product—and that’s precisely what Microsoft has a habit of doing.

With the love-it-or-hate-it Windows 8 around the corner, Microsoft needs to up its game, and fast. Otherwise it risks losing hearts, minds, and market share (and a substantial amount of money.)

  1. The main thing I remember about this campaign was that I slammed it at the time, and that there was an edit going around on YouTube with a flatulence sound effect added.

  2. The fact that the Lumia 900 was, days later, being patched (and effectively given away for free with a voucher) to correct a minor yet critical firmware problem that led to data connection issues makes this claim dubious, to say the least.