Microsoft to 'Fix' Live Branding ... But Will First Muck Up MSN Again

A senior Microsoft executive admitted this week that the company needs to fix the branding for its online services, which currently operate under a number of different brands, including Windows Live and MSN. And he's apparently serious about this change, enough so that he's open to completely changing the branding. And yet, this week, Microsoft also revealed that it will seek to make its MSN portal an advertisement-supported entertainment site, further muddying the waters.

"Fix means fix," Microsoft president Kevin Johnson said this week. "If that means change, we'll change."

MSN has had so many branding and focus changes over the years that its name could be Microsoft Legion. It started out as The Microsoft Network in the mid-1990s and was positioned to compete with the traditional online services of the day, American Online and CompuServe. That Microsoft launched this service at the start of the Internet boom and yet provided The Microsoft Network with absolutely no hooks into the Internet should have been a warning of hard times to come.

The next decade or so is confusing to decipher. The Microsoft Network became MSN and has been, at different times, a dial-up Internet access service, a broadband Internet access shell, a Web content portal, a collection of downloadable applications and Web services and, more recently, one of at least three Web portals that Microsoft still maintains. It's even been associated with MSNBC, a network news service. MSN as a brand, frankly, has lost all meaning. What is MSN? It's unclear that even Microsoft knows.

This week, the company announced that it would yet again refashion MSN as an entertainment "destination" site that will debut in 2009. Meanwhile, the Windows Live brand, which took over for the downloadable applications and Web services once branded with the MSN butterfly, hasn't been warmly received, and the company's online search engine--whether branded with MSN or Windows Live--has fared poorly. That Microsoft currently markets at least four "Live" brands--Windows Live, Office Live, Xbox Live, and the confusingly named Zune Marketplace/Zune Social--makes things even more confusing.

My advice--not that anyone is asking--is to leave the content to content producers, drop the multiple portals, and settle on a single brand. I recommend "Live," which is simple, concise, and easy to remember.

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