Microsoft buoys MSN with record consumer foray

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Microsoft Corp. today unleashes its biggest-ever consumer marketing push for the MSN online brand. The $150 million campaign comes as Microsoft struggles to boost the number of MSN subscribers, strengthen bonds with consumers and soften its overall image amid an ongoing antitrust suit.

The broad-based multimedia campaign by McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York and San Francisco, recasts the MSN brand as the "Everyday Web" and gives it a new logo and butterfly icon.

EVERYDAY EASE

Designed by FutureBrand, San Francisco, a McCann subsidiary, the icon symbolizes MSN attributes-simplicity, accessibility and empowerment, according to Deanna Sanford, lead product manager, MSN.

"The butterfly better represents the vision of MSN and the `Everyday Web,' making it easy for people to get things done on the Web every day . . . paying bills, shopping and communicating," she continued.

The campaign will cut a wide swath across TV, print and the Web. Microsoft's expenditure will extend through 2000, and is described as a potentially "very long-term advertising project."

"It really demonstrates our commitment to MSN and to providing great Internet services to consumers," Ms. Sanford said.

While the MSN portal attracted 32 million unique visitors in December, according to Media Metrix, the online service has only 2.5 million subscribers. By contrast, America Online boasts nearly 20 million subscribers, and the newly merged EarthLink and MindSpring weighs in with about 6 million subscribers.

The awareness-building effort breaks tonight in prime time and introduces four characters with differing backgrounds situated in a house a la MTV's "Real World," with nothing but MSN Internet service.

There's Georgia, a young tech-savvy, freshly minted college grad who narrates the ads; Mike, a twentysomething slacker type with plenty of enthusiasm for the Web but a dearth of know-how; Karen, the late 30s social glue character; and Jackson, a fiftysomething early retiree who's had experience navigating the Web.

The MSN spots-created to engage and drive consumers to a toll-free number to sign up for the service-will show the four using various MSN features as they adjust to living with one another. Each episode will highlight MSN functions and services, such as the eShop mega-mall or how to use MSN to build a community Web page.

The 10 spots produced so far represent a new direction for MSN: establishing an evolving narrative in advertising to consumers. (Ads in Microsoft's "Business Internet" campaign also are episodic, showcasing a character's ongoing frustrations in making sense of e-business.

LOUDER, DEEPER

The drive comes as Net players bulk up and renew marketing plays in the face of the massive, pending AOL-Time Warner merger.

"Given Microsoft's deep pockets, if it's decided to make MSN Internet access a priority, then I think this will allow it to attract new consumers. It [the competition for subscribers] will come down to who gets the message out louder and more deeply," said Jupiter Communications analyst Joe Laszlo. "I think we'll definitely start to see MSN growing more."

Microsoft's recent rash of retail alliances with Tandy Corp.'s RadioShack, Best Buy Co. and Costco, among others, aim to sign up MSN subscribers and eventually sell a host of wireless solutions and planned broadband services. Rivals AOL and Yahoo! already have such deals with Wal-Mart Stores and Kmart Corp., respectively.

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