Recently, Communicate had the opportunity to sit down with Tim O’Brien, Microsoft’s general manager of global communications, for a chat about Microsoft’s branding strategies and how they have changed since the tech giant was born.
How has Microsoft evolved as a brand?
In the earliest days of the company, most people associated it with a PC on every desktop and in every home. That goal was largely accomplished. The brand’s promise was ease of access to technology and choices through different devices, and then, as we expanded into more and more businesses, a lot of those businesses took on brand identities of their own. These [individual] brand strategies succeeded within their silos but as an overarching brand strategy, it was terribly fragmented. So, in recent years, we really started looking at the holistic view associated with all these businesses and products. A lot of things we’re doing at Microsoft today, like with TV advertisements and such, won’t actually mention a product. The advert will be for Microsoft. Not using the company brand in that context is a missed opportunity.
Is there a threat to people not knowing the products?
The bigger issue would be people knowing the products but not the brand. For example, there is a community of people that are rabid about Xbox or Skype but they don’t understand that they’re Microsoft. That’s a bigger issue.
How does Microsoft want to be perceived by the public currently?
The easiest answer to that is really to start with the mission statement.
Our CEO, [Satya Nadella] had embarked on an effort to rediscover the soul of Microsoft. Satya asked this thought-provoking question: What would the world be like if Microsoft never existed? And that was the lens through which we would [rediscover] what is our reason for being. We were just coalescing around this idea of empowerment because if Microsoft had never existed, people wouldn’t be as empowered to [use] technology the way that they [do]. For Microsoft, it was unorthodox to not speak of the products. It was a departure from the way we had done things in the past, but this was an exercise in rediscovering the soul of the company. We published the company’s new mission statement: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” We want people to perceive the brand through the lens of empowerment.
Is it important for brands to reevaluate their mission statement often?
It’s important for brands not to confuse a mission with a goal. Goals are achievable, where you can check the box and say, “It’s done”. The mission should rise above that: if you have a mission, you should never be at a point to say it’s done and we need to move on. But goals can be set in the context of that mission. When we [consider] the company’s mission of a PC on every desktop in every home, looking back, it was probably more of a goal than a mission. In 2015, if you try to ponder a mission like that in the context of all the businesses we’re in, it isn’t really relevant. It was a goal we can say we’ve achieved, but as a company mission, we needed something more of an aspiration.
What is the best way to get a brand’s message across?
There’s lots of research on this; I’ve come to appreciate the work Daniel Kahneman has done. He won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. He had done research positing that the human brain has two systems, the logical part and the emotional part. He asserted that the part that processes all the information is very logical and reasonable – but it’s lazy. The emotional part wins, so you see people in a car dealership saying this is too expensive and listing ten reasons they shouldn’t buy [the car], but then they just have to have it. Every ad agency in the world is using this work to inform how they communicate brand value to people by forging that emotional connection. Tech companies tend to be very engineering-led, where they want to tell you about the attributes of the products. This is the kind of research that turns that on its head, saying that no one will process that, but if you forge an emotional connection with people, that’s the thing that will stand the test of time. You have to do both, actually. At some point, you have to ask people what you want them to do: “Go buy this” or “Go download this”. You have to do both in order to compel someone to go to the store and make the purchase; you have to have the prerequisite of an emotional connection in place.
Is Microsoft a “cool” brand?
I don’t think we get to answer that question. Everyone outside of Microsoft gets to decide that. It’s self-serving for an employee on the payroll to even ponder that. If you have opinions about whether or not you’re cool, then, by definition, you’re probably not. The positive energy around the company and the change in approach, the way we engage our customers and technical audiences we look after are all trending positive. We now have the permission to be front-footed in the things we’re doing and are proud of the products we’re showing to our friends and family. We’ve always had areas of tremendous strength, so when you’re a leader [in a category] you have the permission to be front-footed, but when you’re a challenger, sometimes you have to earn that right. When Satya became CEO, he talked to employees about the need to adopt a challenger mindset; the mobile device business is a good example. We have some tough competitors in that space, we’ve taken on a dominant market position and people shouldn’t be confused about the fact that we’re not a leader in mobile phones, that we’re a challenger and we should adopt that mindset and engage our customers and the market with that reality.