Thinking About Microsoft's Brands

Thinking About Microsoft's Brands

Surface vs. Lumia

Mary Jo Foley is reporting that Microsoft could be getting ready to replace its Surface branding—currently used on a PC tablet lineup—with the Lumia branding that originated with Nokia's smart phone business. Certainly, Microsoft will need to incorporate or change various Nokia brands as it further subsumes that business. But this episode highlights a growing crisis at the software giant: When was the last time Microsoft created a truly successful new brand?

According to Mary Jo, who cites an @evleaks tweet, Microsoft could be planning to replace its Surface brand with the Lumia brand that Nokia used on smart phones and one ill-conceived Windows RT-based tablet. Less interesting, the firm is also considering licensing the Nokia brand for longer so it can continue using it on phones, most likely because the Nokia brand is so strong in emerging markets.

Both of these plans are mistakes, I believe. But Mary Jo hits the nail on the head right up front, too: Branding is hard. It's particularly hard for Microsoft, a company that has a stable's worth of terrible brands that came and flamed out badly. And that's the real story here, I think.

But don't mistake branding with product success. I don't think the iPod brand is a particularly "good" brand, for example, but that product line was obviously very successful regardless. Brands that built off of iPod, however, are often perfectly fine, in part because they do a better job of describing the underlying product. Witness iPhone and iPad as obvious examples.

But what about Microsoft brands?

Zune wasn't necessarily a terrible brand, though it is often cited as so. The issue with Zune, like Bing, is twofold. First, it doesn't help someone understand what the underlying product/service(s) are. (Not always an issue, yes: works somehow. And Pentium. Though both were curiosities at first.) And two, because they're not particularly successful or memorable—no one has ever non-ironically said they were going to "Bing" something—the brands became somewhat poisoned as the underlying products failed.

SkyDrive was a good brand. Until, of course, Sky TV sued Microsoft and somehow won. Windows Live seemed like a good brand—"Windows everywhere" and so on—until it became obvious that Microsoft was over-milking the Windows brand by applying it to everything. It's like that popular song you hear on the radio way too often, to the point where just hearing the opening strains makes you want to scream.

But that's the problem, right? Windows and Office are Microsoft's biggest, best and longest-lasting brands. When it comes to reusing—and reusing and reusing—brands, these are the ones that get abused the most. (There was an Office Live, too, remember. Let's move on.)

To answer my initial question—When was the last time Microsoft created a truly successful new brand?—I'd have to vote for Xbox, a brand that first appeared at the dawn of the 21st century, well over a decade ago. Xbox may or may not be a successful product line depending on how you feel about revenues, investments, and research and development costs. But it is very clearly successful as a brand. So much so that Microsoft is now going to that well a little often now with such things as Xbox Music and Xbox Video. Oops.

Thinking about Surface and Lumia, however, I like what Daniel Rubino said on Twitter yesterday: Maybe Microsoft should simply use Surface for its "pro" Windows PC products and use Lumia on phones and Windows devices. But I also wonder if maybe having too many brands is indeed the issue too. And if you had to choose between Surface and Lumia, is it even clear which, if any, of these brands is any good?

Surface was originally used on the "big ass table" computer, and then briefly on giant screens that are now branded as Perceptive Pixel. The name obviously suggests a surface. One you can touch and interact with. That's good, and positive. Though the products haven't exactly set the world on fire.

Lumia is ... what the heck is Lumia? There's a light association, of course, and one is reminded of the French filmmakers, Auguste and Louis Lumière. (Lumière means light in French.) I think Lumia is a weird brand, at least outside of France. Unless of course you think that the flash on a smart phone—or as I call it, "the light of 1000 suns"—is somehow that device's most memorable characteristic. If it is, you're sunk. They should have come up with a name that connoted excellent camera optics. Too late.

Put simply, I prefer Surface to Lumia, not that anyone is asking. It works for phones as well as it does for any other touch-based devices. And it's Microsoft's brand, not Nokia's, which I think is important.

Choose Surface, Microsoft. The Lumia name stinks.

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