Will Microsoft Prevail With Its Pepé le Pew Approach to Yahoo?

As Tech Giant's Mad Pursuit Devolves Into Looney Tunes Territory, What Does It Mean for the Brand?

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The on-again, off-again, full-frontal, roundabout, all-or-nothing, piecemeal Microsoft run on Yahoo has, of course, become one of the great ongoing media dramadies of the year. My sincere hope is that no deal -- whether Microsoft's bid to snag Yahoo's search business or the whole enchilada, with a little help from Carl Icahn -- is ever consummated. Really, I just want Microsoft to keep on haplessly pouncing and striking and Yahoo to keep on ducking and weaving, because as media-business stories go, this one's utterly irresistible. It's like a Looney Tunes cartoon brought to life.
Steve Ballmer's personal brand takes the spotlight.
Steve Ballmer's personal brand takes the spotlight. Credit: Zuma

And, it's worth noting, it's been exceptionally bad for Microsoft's brand management, right at a time when it's desperately trying to reinvent its image.

It's an odd moment for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to act all Don Quixote-ish. Say what you will about Bill Gates -- that he was a copycat, a monopolist, the King of Buggy Bloatware, etc. -- but in graying, quasi-retired philanthropist mode, he's become a sort of elder statesman. This was never more evident than last year, when he shared a stage with Steve Jobs at Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher's All Things Digital conference. He seemed almost ... cuddly.

But, damn, that Ballmer! He's always been more than a little scary. And with Bill out the door, he's running amok -- to the great detriment of Microsoft.

Technically the CEO of the company since 2000 but perpetually in Bill's shadow, there's something blatantly sinister -- Karl Rove-ian, or Dick Cheney-ish (in both looks and affect) -- about him. The ultimate Company Man, Ballmer can seem possessed -- as evidenced by his notorious "Dance Monkey Boy" routine, a viral-video sensation that shows him screeching and madly jumping around at a developer's conference in a moment of rally-the-troops motivational-speaker ecstasy. You watch his bulky, sweaty frame bouncing around the stage, and you listen to him hollering "I love this company!" and you think, Michael Scott has nothing on this guy.

But lately he's morphed from Monkey Boy to ... Pepé le Pew -- tirelessly chasing after the hapless black cat that is Yahoo. He doesn't even seem to need to see an accidental white stripe down its back. He wants the damn stray no matter what -- whether it's a skunk or not!

Now, it's never pretty to watch one tarnished brand try to forcedly breed with another tarnished brand. It's like watching bad porn -- or the Sears-Kmart merger.

The thing is, as Bill Gates wanders off on his personal Vision Quest and Steve Ballmer becomes the public face of the company, consumers, as often happens with tech companies fronted by high-profile egotists, will begin to conflate his brand values with those of Microsoft. Ballmer, in a way, becomes the brand. That has to be terrifying for Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which landed the Microsoft account earlier this year. In a recent cover story by Danielle Sacks, Fast Company asked, "Can Hotshot Ad Guy Alex Bogusky Make Microsoft Cool?"

Um, no -- not if Ballmer keeps it up. Because it's not only cringe-inducing watching the once invincible Microsoft forced to ratchet down its merger expectations -- yet still proceeding with all the finesse of a schoolyard bully -- but it's symbolically toxic. And strategically dubious. As I've noted before in this space, Microsoft's pursuit of Yahoo is about a company that never really knew how to effectively innovate (the history of Windows is about copying Apple's operating system features years after the fact but making them all crashy and shit) looking for salvation through a company that's forgotten how to effectively innovate.

Meanwhile, at Crispin, Danielle Sacks inventoried Alex Bogusky's work space and spotted, right next to his aviator sunglasses, "a shiny new silver MacBook Air."
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