Windows Phone, This Time with Marketing

Few remember that when Microsoft launched Windows Phone last fall, it accompanied the release with a fairly excellent set of ads. Called "Really?" after the silly smartphone-induced-obliviousness scenes they portrayed, the ads actually did a great job of showing that Microsoft's mobile OS wasn't a me-too release like iPhone or Android. But the "Really?" ads came and went, and that was pretty much it: Windows Phone disappeared into a year of near silence.

One year later, Microsoft is back, this time with a nice upgrade called Windows Phone 7.5 and, soon, a new generation of phones, many of which feature improved hardware—like better cameras—and new features that take advantage of advances in the new software. Microsoft will no doubt unleash a new round of ads aimed at promoting Windows Phone 7.5. But this time, the software giant doesn't intend to go it alone.

First up is Nokia, Microsoft's special partner, a tech "friend with benefits" that will co-develop Windows Phone going forward, providing code and features to the OS that will be used by other hardware partners, as well. Nokia is huge internationally but has virtually no presence in the United States, so to back its move to a new smartphone platform, the electronics giant is setting aside $127 million purely for marketing purposes. This will be spent on a six-month ad campaign that begins late this month.

Nokia marketing muscle is a given, since its Symbian OS is failing fast and the company has staked its future on Windows Phone. But Microsoft is also leaning on some other partners for Windows Phone marketing, and two of them, Samsung and HTC, are among the world's biggest makers of competing handsets based on Android.

No figures have been provided, but Microsoft says that both HTC and Samsung have increased their marketing budgets for Windows Phone. And Microsoft President Andy Lees, who oversees the company's Windows Phone business, this week hinted that Samsung is part of a special, Nokia-like relationship with Microsoft, as well. "Samsung is not quite as deep a dependence as the Nokia one, but it’s certainly in that vein," he said. (Microsoft did recently sign a cross-licensing deal with Samsung; that might explain this comment.)

What's at stake here, really, are the hearts and minds of those most directly responsible for Microsoft's failures in the smartphone market this past year: the employees who work in wireless carrier stores and recommend phones to actual customers. Time after time, studies have come back showing that these employees are downright ignorant of Windows Phone and are frequently hostile toward non-Android phones. So, most potential customers never even hear about Windows Phone, and those who mention it are often steered to other phones.

The plan, then, is for some marketing dollars to be used as incentives for these employees so that they give Windows Phone handsets a fair shake with customers. Can Microsoft and its partners change this behavior and open up Windows Phone as a third front, or option, in the smartphone wars? I believe they can. But overcoming ignorance might require more than a bit of cash. It might call for a more sustained and public marketing campaign, too. Here's hoping for both.

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