September 13, 2013

Know Yourself before Fighting your Enemy

To create, develop, rejuvenate or simply manage a brand is a complex process. Unfortunately for many companies, the challenge to differentiate a product from its competition and to create a loyal community looks more like an obscure craft than a concrete process.

There are numerous tools and techniques that help a brand strengthen its identity, but they are not used well. If their roles are not understood and if they are not part of a serious strategic plan, these tools become useless and can even cause significant income losses. Recent commercials for Microsoft are an obvious example.

Look at this video that caused quite some buzz on social networks:

I loved this video. It made me laugh really hard and I shared it with my friends. However, from a strategic perspective, this commercial is one of the worst I’ve seen. It refers to a classic branding trick: An enemy, whether a direct competitor or a different viewpoint, is a powerful differentiation tool that also brings supporters together.

The purpose of this video is to laugh at the battle between iOS and Android users and to encourage them to switch to a Windows phone.

Apple and Google only leave crumbs of the market to their competition; we can understand Microsoft’s wish to have users switch to a different system. The idea is fun, but it is absolutely useless: it underestimates the differentiation power that it presents in the commercial.

The staged battle reminds customers that they belong to a side. It revives the spirit to fight (I have to admit it: I feel a bit like the guy who opens his shirt and reveals a tattooed apple).

From this point of view, the words spoken by the two Nokia-using actors are a cruel confession:

“You think if they knew about the Lumia, they’d stop fighting all the time?”

Which translates into: if this commercial informs them of the Windows Phone, do you think they’d buy it?

“I don’t know. I think they kind of like fighting.”

Precisely. Consumers love it. We love to pick a side. In this particular case, the vast majority has already taken sides and is fighting for its colors.

This commercial is a case study; it admits very clearly that consumers will not buy its product.

When using the enemy as a differentiation tool, avoid picking two at the same time. This tool can only be used in a “one vs. one” situation and in a very frontal way.

This is probably what Microsoft was trying to achieve in its latest commercial for its “Surface” tablet:

This commercial uses an in-your-face approach and seems to be much more efficient. It is based on differentiation, which immediately makes you think of the classic Apple commercial, “Hello, I’m a Mac; and I’m a PC.”

Watch and enjoy:


However, I still think there is a real problem. It is not so much the commercial as the strategy (or lack thereof) that is troublesome. Microsoft’s problem is that it’s desperate. The Surface tablet doesn’t sell well; the company recently admitted .

The Surface tablet is up against the iPad, which dominates the market, and other serious contenders (Galaxy Tab, Kindle Fire, Nexus, etc.). The Surface feels that it has to compare to the iPad, which is what the commercial literally does. The price is lower, the features are highlighted: the tablet has a stand, a keyboard and a USB port. That’s it. Unfortunately, this product has no real identity; neither does the Microsoft brand.

Steve Sinek, author of Start with Why, explains this problem very well. He calls it “The Golden Circle,” which comprises three circles: why, how, and what.

Steve Sinek shows that the overwhelming majority of brands communicate on facts (the “what”) rather than on their brand identity (the “why”). He takes the in his TED talk (a must-see).

“This is what Apple’s communication would look like if Apple communicated like its competition:

  • We make excellent computers (“what”). They have a fabulous design and are easy to use (“how”). Would you like to buy one?

This is how Apple communicates:

  • Whatever we do, we believe in questioning the status quo. We believe we need to think differently (“why”). Our way of challenging the status quo is to design perfectly designed products that are very simple to use (“how”). It so happens that we make computers (“what”). Would you like to buy one?

Steve Sinek concludes that with this communications style, consumers are buying Apple more than they are buying computers: an mp3 player, music, a tablet, a phone, and tomorrow—who knows?—a watch or a television.

The Golden Circle teaches us that once a brand masters the “why,” what it stands for, everything becomes easier for a company and its marketing. The above-mentioned commercials and the battle between enemies show that a real branding identity, the “why,” will give a purpose for the battle, and a cause to defend.

Microsoft products’ main problem lies in the fact that the company struggles in sharing its vision (if it even has one) and its identity. It reacts with the tablet, just like it reacted with the Zune, which was supposed to compete against the iPod. In all honesty, the commercial for the Surface RT shows a side of Microsoft: productivity. A keyboard, a USB port… “Less Talking, More Doing” shows an emerging identity. But is it the right identity?

Do users really want to join the side of “productive people” or “workers”? This message and this commercial sounds as if Microsoft were reviving the old commercial “Hello I’m a Mac; and I’m a PC.” In the first commercial, Mac said of PC: “You should see what this guy can do with a spreadsheet.”

This production-oriented identity seems weak, since it is absent from all other Surface commercials, which also struggle with a strong identity and a consistent message.

In terms of identity, watch the video that Apple showed as its keynote opening in June 2013:

Of course, this is not a commercial. However, compare this to the commercials that we have just mentioned. Microsoft tries to be persistent with the line “do you still think I’m sexy?” But it is clear that one of the two companies is clear about its identity and that the other one struggles.

At the time when Steve Ballmer announced his departure from Microsoft in the next 12 months, the company cannot avoid a deep introspection regarding its business strategy and its communication through branding.

The above-mentioned examples teach us that branding cannot afford improvisation. In crafting and sharing its Branding Strategy System, Enigma describes this complex process. This system implies a relevant dialogue with the company, and makes sure that its communications plan relies on a solid strategic base. Without such a pro-active thinking, communications operations will remain empty shells, just like Microsoft’s.

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