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  • The Dangers of Drawing Attention to Your Competitors

    May 18th, 2009

    The latest duel between Apple and Microsoft is playing out in a series of much-discussed ads from both companies that purport to present their sides of the great operating system wars.

    On the one hand, you have the pleasantly satirical Mac versus PC spots from Apple, in which the PC is depicted as a pleasant but always frazzled person, while the Mac is simply cool. Microsoft’s answer is to have actors masquerade as regular people who are given money and the task of buying the best note-book. Hint: It’s always a PC. So what did you expect?

    Now you just knew that Apple fans would quickly pick out the blatant flaws in Microsoft’s advertising, which only goes to show that the company didn’t vet those ads properly. Surely they could have staged it so their performers selected more compelling Windows-based note-books, as there are some models that compete far better with the Mac alternative. It’s almost as if they were designed to fail.

    However, the larger issue is just how much a company wants to focus attention on its main competitor. With Apple, the 800-pound Microsoft gorilla is always in the room, so they may as well acknowledge it. Their technique, of course, is to use humor to focus on the well-known shortcomings in Windows. Sure there’s exaggeration on both sides, but the core message is actually quite accurate and that clearly doesn’t sit well with Microsoft’s leadership.

    More to the point, CEO Steve Ballmer is the sort of “shoot from the hip” person who can’t hide his feelings about pointed criticism. You can almost hear him screaming into the phone at his ad agency demanding they do something, anything, to combat Apple’s campaign.

    A writer from Fortune is suggesting that Bill Gates, faced with a similar set of circumstances, would have simply taken the high road and ignored Apple. Sometimes the best way to defeat the competitor is to accentuate the positives, such as they are, and pretend that there are no other companies out there with comparable products.

    Indeed, those cute spots featuring a child doing cool things on a PC were just perfect. It made Windows seem warm, fuzzy and not as intimidating as some might have you believe. No doubt such basic tasks are probably near as easy to perform on a PC as on a Mac, and an expansion of that campaign might have done wonders to improve the tarnished image of Windows.

    But, no, Microsoft doesn’t know when to stop, and running an ad campaign in which the Mac is mentioned constantly only elevates Apple’s status in this supposed battle to the death. Worse, doing a poor comparison is worse than none at all. Microsoft is actually not even promoting Windows in these ads, but someone else’s hardware. Whether it’s HP, Sony or another company doesn’t matter. Nothing in those ads conveys the message of whether Windows can actually get the job done, only that the hardware on which it runs may or may not be cheaper than a Mac. Even that depends on how you interpret the purchase choices that were made.

    Of course, the best method of evaluating an ad campaign is what people in the industry call Return On Investment, or ROI for short. If the money spent is delivering decent sales and profits, you continue the campaign, even if lots of people hate your approach. However, if sales don’t change, or are impacted negatively, then you try a different approach and see if it fares better.

    I rather expect that Apple’s Mac versus PC ads are bona fide hits. That’s why the campaign has continued for the past several years. At the same time, you have to think of Microsoft as a company scrambling to find a coherent message, because they are taking the music industry approach of throwing out tons of product in the hope that something will catch on.

    Sure, Microsoft’s method may gain the attention of Mac users, who delight in finding holes in the message. That indeed may draw critical, but not friendly, attention to the campaign. But the average consumer may not care one way or the other. The worst that can happen is that people will simply fast forward through the ads on their DVRs. With more and more people time-shifting TV fare for later viewing, that can be death to even the most clever marketing plan. And nothing, to me at least, speaks clever in most of Microsoft’s efforts so far. Except for the ones featuring children, of course.

    On the long term, it’s quite possible Microsoft will simply keep the ads going non-stop, one after another, in the hope that the message they are trying to convey, the existence of an Apple Tax, sinks in. But public perceptions have long ago concluded the very same thing, that a Mac is more expensive than a PC. But people who buy Macs anyway don’t care about the price difference. They seek a better product.

    As a matter of fact, I won’t even repeat my well-worn arguments about the Apple Tax message. It doesn’t matter anymore. Microsoft hasn’t realized that yet, and it may indeed be too late for them before they do. Way too late!



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