This year, Microsoft will remind us that it's firmly in that third category when it drops upward of $300 million to try to convince consumers that its slate of Windows-based products really, really, really aren't the grim, unfriendly, square artifacts of dweebdom they're being depicted as in a heavy-rotation ad campaign from the much smaller and much hipper Apple.
Last week, the Redmond, Wash., company did what desperate marketers do when they need refreshing: It hired Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the agency that has breathed life into brands such as Burger King and Volkswagen with weird/creepy messages and innovative media, from original video games to hotel-room porn channels.
Unarguable track record
Given Crispin's track record, it's tough to argue with the choice of agency -- unless, of course, you don't think Microsoft's problem is one an ad agency can solve. "Microsoft lacks marketing skills," analyst Rob Enderle told Ad Age last week. "They can bring creative onboard, but if it is not directed, you wind up with creative junk. ... It's clear to me this is not just an agency problem."
Yet that's clearly how Microsoft is interpreting it. Faced with brand pressure from players such as Apple and Google, the marketer went beyond agency of record McCann Erickson for an assignment that people familiar with it said is all about creating preference for and loyalty to Windows products, whether on the desktop, on the web or on mobile devices. These people say media spending could be in the range of $300 million to $400 million, if not higher.
How, exactly, will Crispin achieve this? Neither the agency nor the marketer are giving any details beyond a terse statement from Microsoft last week confirming Crispin's hire for "an upcoming consumer-marketing campaign." Safe money is on a communications strategy that strays outside the usual media boxes and on creative that ditches that anthemic, hushed tone Microsoft used in its blowout for the launch of Windows Vista, which featured people peering at sublime sights and uttering the tagline "Wow." "Wow" would not be an apt reaction to Vista sales that trail those of previous-generation product XP. Last week Microsoft announced price cuts for some versions of the operating system.
David Roman, VP-marketing communications for the personal-systems group at Hewlett-Packard, whose PCs come with Windows, said the campaign will be focused "more the human side of the product, the emotional side of the product and also making it cool."
Hardware people hopeful
"It's a very good thing for us as a Windows [original equipment manufacturer]," he added. Crispin has an ability to "marry both a creative breakthrough and commercial success."
Another industry observer seconded that.
"Crispin is just an idea agency and the most fruitful idea agency I've come across," said Ann Billock, partner-principal at the consultancy Ark Advisors. "They are not afraid to fail." Crispin, she said, has a way to "make clients feel confident in taking risks." That's something, Ms. Billock stressed, that's not easy to accomplish given pressures from Wall Street.
Microsoft, of course, knows those pressures well. Apple and other competitors such as Google are high flyers in the stock market, trading at much higher prices than Microsoft despite the latter's domination of the enterprise-software space and strong, debt-free balance sheet. What's responsible for the gap between the companies? No doubt it's in part a matter of perception, but what's less certain is whether Crispin will be able to find that cool.