NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Microsoft has used attack ads to go after Apple, and now it has Google in its sights.
The software giant is set to launch an $80 million to $100 million campaign for Bing, the search engine it hopes will help it grab a bigger slice of the online ad market. That's a big campaign -- big compared with consumer-product launches ($50 million is considered a sizable budget for a national rollout) and very big when you consider that Google spent about $25 million on all its advertising last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence, with about $11.6 million of that focused on recruiting. Microsoft, by comparison, spent $361 million. Certainly Google has never faced an ad assault of anything like this magnitude.
JWT has been tapped for the push, which will include online, TV, print and radio. Another sign of the campaign's size: At a time when most agencies are laying people off, JWT added creatives on the Microsoft business last week.
People with knowledge of the planned push said the ads won't go after Google, or Yahoo for that matter, by name. Instead, they'll focus on planting the idea that today's search engines don't work as well as consumers previously thought by asking them whether search (aka Google) really solves their problems. That, Microsoft is hoping, will give consumers a reason to consider switching search engines, which, of course, is one of Bing's biggest challenges.
"If you grab the average user off the street and ask them, 'Does search suck?' I think they'd say no. They don't know what else can be done," said Shashi Seth, a former Google executive who is now chief revenue officer at Cooliris. "They think search does a pretty good job, and if you could prove otherwise with a product that's differentiated, people will sit up and take notice."
Case for refinement
Indeed, data show that about 65% of people are satisfied or very satisfied with online search. But Microsoft sees an opening on its own proprietary search data: 42% of searches require refinement, and 25% of clicks are the back button.
That's why Mr. Seth likens the Bing marketing challenge to that of the Apple iPhone before it was introduced. Most people, pre-iPhone, didn't know they were missing a multi-touch screen, or an application that would enable them to detect what song was playing wherever they were. But Apple, through its ads, showed how markedly different the experience was and created a new de facto standard for phones.
Many will argue that no amount of advertising Microsoft throws at the product will make a difference -- the quality of search results is the only thing that matters. And that may have once been true; after all, Google built its brand on the back of a great user experience, results that were markedly better and zero ad support.
But that's not necessarily true anymore, as the quality of search engines has approached parity. Sure, there are no switching costs, and it's easy to simply type in a new web address should a better engine come along, but the psychological pull of the leading brand in the space overrides those factors for many consumers.
Consider that Google has conducted internal tests, according to people familiar with them, in which the company put its logo and treatment on another engine's search results. Users still prefer the results with the Google logo, even if they're not Google results. Or consider that a revamped Ask.com made its debut in 2007 to a glowing review from The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, who said it "holds its own with Google, and even beats the champ on some searches." Two years later? Ask's share of search is down 28%.
"I don't think they can win this game with a better mousetrap," said Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, New York. "They have to compete with Google on a brand front -- there's no other way to skin this but go head on against the Google brand."
Obviously Microsoft has not shied away from "going head on" in its Windows campaign. Its chief attack on Apple -- that it's too expensive and not worth the high price -- is showing some signs of working. Apple's value perception among 18- to 34-year-olds has dropped significantly since the campaign launched in late March, which might be a testament to the right message at the right time.
Still, advertising isn't a panacea, as even the most self-absorbed ad man knows, especially when it's not the right advertising. Ask.com famously spent $57 million in 2007 to market its engine, and another $22 million last year, according to TNS. The 2007 campaign was an oddball execution from Crispin Porter & Bogusky that touted "the algorithm" -- a concept unlikely to grab anyone not already entrenched in the world of digital marketing. What Microsoft needs to do is go after people who don't know and probably don't care what an algorithm is.
And all the advertising in the world only works if the product backs it up. People who've seen the Microsoft product suggest it's useful and has some nifty filtering tools, even though it's not a markedly different-looking interface, at least for text search (some of the multimedia search results, however, do look quite different from how Google currently displays them).
"It doesn't take a lot to switch people from one type to another and usually it's a unique feature that gets people excited," said David Karnstedt, CEO of Efficient Frontier and former head of sales for Yahoo. He reflected on his days at AltaVista, which Google supplanted. "Google got people excited because it got people and places right early on. That got people to really start to switch, and once developed the habit of using Google, it was hard to get them to switch back."
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Contributing: Rupal Parekh