DALLAS (AdAge.com) -- Microsoft's ambitious retail-store rollout is officially under way, and Richmond, Va.-based Martin Agency is helping the company gain equal retail footing with rival Apple.
The tech giant took the wraps off the first Microsoft store in a mall in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Oct. 22, the same day it launched its Windows 7 operating system, with a grand opening featuring pop-tartlet Ashley Tisdale and Microsoft's chief operating officer, Kevin Turner. (The company's CEO, Steve Ballmer, was in New York for Windows 7 launch.) A second store, in Mission Viejo, Calif., is slated to open today. Besides hawking laptops, netbooks, software, phones, Xbox consoles and games, the store will also offer technical support and performance tune-ups, among other services.
"Martin's work for Walmart and UPS proved they could translate complicated products into simple stories," said David Porter, Microsoft's corporate VP-retail stores, a longtime veteran of Walmart who most recently worked at movie studio DreamWorks. " The Martin Agency's partnership with Microsoft was integral to the development of our new retail store concept and I could not be happier with the effort, energy and commitment of the team."
Microsoft selected Martin, along with its design unit, Collins Design, which are part of Interpublic Group of Cos., after a pitch in which Microsoft's retail team earlier this year quietly met with a number of agencies, design firms and architects to come up with ideas about store design and who the target consumer is.
Martin's chief creative officer, Mike Hughes, said the shop is "doing things never done before in retail" for Microsoft. (A pretty bold statement, considering the agency is also the lead ad shop for the biggest retailer in the world, Walmart.) One noteworthy attribute of the Microsoft stores: The store's walls are lined with giant LCD screens that are billed as the world's largest high-definition retail display, equal to 18 times the width of an IMAX movie screen.
Among its responsibilities, Martin has crafted a new logo for the stores; designed packaging, including shopping bags and laptop boxes; designed employee uniforms; and developed the stores' advertising. Besides out-of-home media such as bus wraps and traditional media buys for local radio and newspapers, the agency also created in-store point-of-sales displays that include customizable "skins" that will be offered to customers for their computers, Xbox consoles and Zune MP3 players.
Microsoft isn't pulling any punches in its battle with Apple on the retail front. The first stores look remarkably Apple-esque, with glass storefronts, plenty of white space and sleek product display tables. The Mission Viejo location is even in the same mall as an Apple store. (No doubt this latest skirmish in the ongoing Mac-PC war will be used as a theme in Apple's barrage of ads featuring actors John Hodgman and Justin Long.)
Just how many stores Microsoft plans to open and how big an investment this is for the software giant isn't clear. "[We will] make some adjustments, open a few more stores and repeat this process as quickly as it makes good business sense. This is a long-term investment for Microsoft as we establish a direct connection with consumers," a spokeswoman said.
Microsoft does seem committed to a global launch, with stores opening in the U.S. and then in major cities such as London, though it will most likely have fewer locations than Apple, which so far has opened up more than 200 worldwide, covering most U.S. states as well as Australia, Japan, Italy and Switzerland.
Agency roster grows
While many large marketers have trimmed their agency rosters to help rein in costs during the recession, the list of creative agencies Microsoft works with has grown. For years, Interpublic's McCann Erickson handled the bulk of the software giant's creative ad duties. It still does work for the Xbox and a phone code-named "Pink," but as Microsoft has expanded its business to launch a search engine, Bing, and set up its stores, it has allocated marketing assignments among several shops. In addition to McCann and Martin Agency, its roster now includes MDC Partners' Crispin Porter & Bogusky, WPP's JWT and Wunderman, and smaller shops such as Indianapolis-based Bradley and Montgomery.
For Martin, Microsoft's retail stores mean more than a high-profile assignment for a blue-chip client; it means expanding its footprint to the West Coast. The agency, which has headquarters in Virginia and operates a small office in New York, is planning to open its doors in downtown Seattle to offer ongoing support for Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, as well as another recently added client in the vicinity, Bellvue-based Expedia.
The office space isn't finalized yet, and Martin "absolutely will use IPG space if it's available and suitable," said Martin CEO John Adams, but that "space is full, we'll lease our own space."
Leading the West Coast office will be Brad Higdon, a senior account leader and an officer at Martin. "For us, it's essential that this office carry the same cultural DNA as our headquarters and the New York office," Mr. Adams said. "Brad agreed to go to Seattle to build a great office and provide that cultural anchor."