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Making Microsoft cool ... Is it even possible?

A fascinating article proving that Microsoft is indeed listening to criticisms about its image:

Now Crispin has been handed perhaps its biggest challenge to date: Microsoft. The tech giant stunned the ad world in March when it passed over safer choices like Fallon, JWT, and its agency of record, McCann Worldgroup, and awarded its new $300 million consumer-branding campaign to Crispin. It was an act of courage or desperation, depending on whom you ask.

Desperation, if you're asking me.

Microsoft's already problematic reputation in some circles -- as the soulless, power-hungry purveyor of lackluster products -- has suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds. It spent two years and $500 million on the media blitz around the long-delayed Windows Vista launch, only to see the January 2007 "Wow" campaign, which likened Microsoft's new operating system to Woodstock and the fall of the Berlin Wall, derided as arrogant and creatively void.

"Microsoft has really lost control of its image," says Rob Enderle, an influential advisory analyst for tech companies including Dell, HP, and Microsoft. And with its two most formidable competitors -- Apple and Google -- boasting their own consumer cults, that's the last thing Microsoft can afford to do.

Nothing is doing more to carve away at Microsoft's reputation -- and contribute to its loss of market share -- than the assault launched by Apple two years ago in the form of the "Mac vs. PC" spots featuring The Daily Show satirist John Hodgman. The ads became immediate pop-culture fixtures ...

... as I've told Microsoft numerous times...

"Nobody messes with anyone in the tech industry the way Apple has messed with Microsoft," says Enderle. "It's the first time I've ever seen a major national campaign that disparages a competitor, and the competitor just sits back and takes it. If somebody tried to do that to Oracle, you wouldn't be able to find the body."

What a great quote. :)

Gartner media research analyst Andrew Frank credits Apple -- whose annual media spend is less than half of Microsoft's nearly $1 billion budget -- with single-handedly rebranding Microsoft "as a kind of self-conscious and self-absorbed nerd that is out of touch with the normal lives and needs of its users."

[Apple CEO Steve] Jobs's unerring ability to locate and amplify what's cool in the culture is among the big challenges in Crispin's quest to give Microsoft new street cred. But Microsoft's degree of patience and tolerance for risk -- even embarrassment -- remain major variables too.

Crispin has been restricted from revealing Microsoft's strategy or creative ideas for the campaign, which is slated to break in July (and they're even being cagey about that date).

Break in July? It's broken now! :) Too easy? Sorry.

Whatever is done, though, will clearly involve an attempt at a major personality overhaul.

For Microsoft, some of those combustibles may lie in the edgier parts of its empire -- Xbox, Zune, Halo, even the company's stake in Facebook. Bogusky hopes Microsoft will give his team the same kind of access Apple has granted Chiat\Day. "A big part of positioning those products is being there in those early stages, knowing what the engineers think the story is, so the story doesn't get lost," he says.

Not everyone is convinced that Microsoft's problem is simply about ad messaging. "Microsoft seems like a company whose executive staff is isolated and unable to move and take corrective action," says tech analyst Enderle, explaining the obstacles for Crispin. "I worry more on the client side than the agency side."

Me too, Rob. Me too. This all goes back to that "Microsoft should split out consumer Windows" argument. Until the company has the guts to make that step, they're not getting anywhere, no matter how "cool" this ad campaign is. It's time for a shake-up. It may, in fact, be too late.

"I suspect what Microsoft would most like to instill in people's minds is they are innovators and leaders, and that's what they think of as being cool," Gartner's says.

Yep. And that is why they fail. In the same way that "trying to be cool" isn't the same as being cool, "wishing to be seen as innovative" doesn't make one innovative.

Amazing stuff. Thanks Dmitry.

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