There’s Nothing There

The odd saga of Microsoft’s nascent $300 million rebranding campaign brings to mind this nugget of genius from Paul Rand:

A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it represents is more important than what it looks like.

This holds true not just for logo marks specifically, but also in the broader, more abstract sense of brands in general. No brand is better or stronger than the products and experiences it represents. A good brand is strong because it is true, not because it is clever.

The problem Microsoft faces today is that they have nothing to hang their brand on. Windows is Windows, so colossal it exists in its own orbit. (If anything, the problem Microsoft faces with Windows is the problem Apple faced a decade ago with the Mac, where the product seemed bigger and more important than the company that made it.) The consensus opinion regarding Vista is that it’s a massive six-years-in-the-making dud. Office is Office. Oh boy, spreadsheets and PowerPoint.

Xbox is the only thing they have that actually makes people happy, but the entire Xbox business is small potatoes by Microsoft’s scale.

So for years now Microsoft has been running vapid, meaningless campaigns such as “people_ready”. Here’s the text from a print ad they ran in May 2006, which I wrote about here:

In a people-ready business, people make it happen. People, ready with software. When you give your people tools that connect, inform, and empower them, they’re ready. Ready to collaborate with partners, suppliers, and customers. Ready to streamline the supply chain, beat impossible deadlines, and develop ideas that can sway the course of industry. Ready to build a successful business: a people-ready business. Microsoft. Software for the people-ready business. To learn more, visit microsoft.com/peopleready

This ad says nothing, but pretends to say something.

Which brings us to the two TV spots Microsoft debuted this month, featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates. The first, shoe shopping. The second, less a commercial than a 4.5-minute short film, shows Gates and Seinfeld moving in with a typical family in an attempt to reconnect with, well, typical people.

As entertainment, the spots are good. Both are well-shot, well-cut, well-acted works of cinema. And they’re a radical departure for Microsoft insofar as they completely dropped the meaningless corporate doublespeak that’s been the hallmark of their advertising for the last decade.

But they “worked” only insofar as they said nothing and dropped the pretense of saying something. The spots said nothing and reveled in the nothingness.

Just well-made nothing. A couple of million bucks just burned up in well-produced style.

It’s not necessary for effective ads to directly sell anything. An effective ad simply has to make a point. Some of the best ads, rather than establishing facts or planting ideas, instead create a feeling. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign didn’t tell you to buy sneakers. Apple’s “Think Different” didn’t even mention computers. But those campaigns created feelings about those brands that were so strong that they still feel new.

Microsoft’s panicked reaction to these Seinfeld ads, yanking them from the air and severing ties with Seinfeld, isn’t because the ads were poorly received. And dropping these ads is a panicked reaction. Let’s not pretend it makes any sense that the Seinfeld spots were planned as a two-episode teaser all along. No one signs Jerry Seinfeld for $10 million in a much-heralded deal to make just two spots that only run for a grand total of two weeks. The most telling fact is that the firm that reached out to the media yesterday to explain that this sudden shift was supposedly the plan all along was not Crispin Porter, the advertising agency producing the campaign, but Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s PR firm. Advertising campaigns which are going according to plan do not need PR firms to assert such.

The reaction to the ads wasn’t bad, it was mixed (and/or baffled). But the spots were undeniably successful in one important regard: they were noticed and discussed. I suspect what sparked the panic is that the Seinfeld ads were too good, too accurate at capturing just what it is that Microsoft, as a company and brand, stands for: nothing.

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