Why Microsoft Needs to Start Acting Like a Challenger Brand

It's Time for the Faltering Giant to Start a Food Fight

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The news from Microsoft last week was dismal: The company missed profit projections by a huge margin in the last quarter, writing down almost a billion in unsold Surface tablet inventory while cutting prices. An ongoing slide in PC shipments is looking like a chronic illness, which means a continued slowing of Windows sales. Microsoft's massive reorganization promises months if not years of personnel and project chaos.

So I say it's time for Microsoft to pull a Bluto in "Animal House": start a food fight. Microsoft needs to begin acting like a challenger brand.

The company already looks like one size-wise, with a market cap that trails tech biggies like Apple, Amazon, and Google, though its name and logo are probably as recognizable as the days of the week. And I'd bet there are just as many quirky people walking around its campuses dreaming about weirdly cool things as there are at every other tech company, whether small or large.

Challenger brands do things to shake up the status quo. Microsoft can't go to the best talent money can buy with a new creative brief, and then spend zillions delivering the stuff they dream up. That's what it always does. Instead, its reorganization needs to go beyond changing reporting structures, and enable the company to do things -- real things -- that challenge how we think about it.

Here are a few thought-starters on what that might look like.

Dare to show us the future. What little I know about the company tells me that Microsoft has loads of things buried in labs and disk drives. Its research page all but drains the spirit from what might otherwise be interesting activities, while Google can't stop talking about its glasses and driverless car. Microsoft should go farther, and own big, bold visions of the future, like artificial intelligence or human-machine interaction, and reveal or initiate the work that makes it the go-to source. Dare to be far-out.

Don't enter markets, blow them up. Zune, Surface, even the updates to its OS seem like imitations of what's available from its competitors. A recent exception was its Windows tiles, but it stayed mum on it so customers could fail to understand what was going on. Microsoft should bring products to market that are first-timers or, like Apple, re-imagine extant products and make them new. It should risk failure. If marketing spin has to make the case for why something is different, it's probably not.

Pick fights. Microsoft is about as rambunctious as a government bureaucracy. Challenger brands punch competitors in the nose, and don't shy away from thorny, news- and conversation-worthy issues, but rather use them to gain positioning and exposure. Microsoft could embrace a topic like "open systems" and argue against the closed tech ecosystems of its hardware and online social-platform competitors. It has already planted a flag in support of "privacy," with ads targeted at Google. The key is to turn the conversation it hopes to start into a full-fledged argument.

Fire up employees … or fire them. Did you know that almost 100,000 people work at Microsoft? That's more bodies than Canada has in its entire army. I'm sure the company embraces a variety of social gimmicks, but I'd throw it all out and come up with a plan to empower those employees to become true, vocal and relentless advocates. Make them care about the company, not just work there, which would mean coming up with ideas deeper than changed reporting charts. Microsoft needs to be a cause (inventing the future, changing markets, picking fights, etc).

Hiring expert communicators to make Microsoft cool has proven about as effective as putting lipstick on a pig. Steve Ballmer is no Jeff Bezos (he isn't building a spaceship in his spare time), and computer OS isn't sexy right out of the box. So change the approach. Change the box, the software, the people and the entire business so it can challenge competitors, markets, and us. That's what could make it a challenger brand.

Coming up with the advertising and marketing to support those efforts would not only be really cool and different. It might even work.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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