From Cola Wars to Computer Wars – Microsoft misses again.

by John Furgurson on April 4, 2009

Back in the 70’s and 80’s the most talked-about battle of the brands was between Coke & Pepsi. The Cola war was a popular topic of college marketing classes, sit coms and even Saturday Night Live.

“No Coke. Pepsi!” John Belushi once said.

Today the battlefield has shifted from soft drinks to software. From free-spirited young people who’d “like to teach the world to sing” to nerds all over the world claiming “I’m a PC.”

It’s the war between Microsoft and Apple. A war that should never have been fought.

Every since 1984, when Steve Jobs launched the Macintosh with one of the most famous superbowl commercials of all time, the folks up in Redmond have been paranoid about Apple. So paranoid, in fact, they’ve ignored one of the most basic tenets of marketing…

Never respond to an attack by a smaller competitor.

This is marketing 101 folks. If you control 90% of the market, like Microsoft does, don’t give a puny little competitor like Apple the time of day. Don’t get suckered into a fight, and don’t design an ad campaign that directly mimics the competitor’s campaign.

I don’t think there’s ever been a more overt, tit-for-tat advertising war. (If you can think of one, please, send a comment.)

Apple started it all with the help of TBWA/Chiat Day’s brilliantly simple “I’m a Mac” campaign. Those spots work on so many different levels, if the Microsoft execs were smart, they wouldn’t touch the subject with a ten-foot pole. Just let it go, and come up with something memorable of your own. You’re the market leader, remember!

But nope. They played right into the enemy’s hands and produced a knock-off version of the Apple spots. They hired an actor who looks like the guy in the Apple spots, and gave him this opening line: “Hello, I’m a PC, and I’ve been made into a stereotype.”

All that did was shine the spotlight back on Jobs & company. Microsoft’s copy cat spots gave the Apple campaign a whole new life. Every time one ran, the audience was reminded of the original Apple spots. Not only that, the media coverage of the marketing battle gave Apple free airtime, effectively extending the smaller competitor’s media budget.

I’m not sure if Apple was purposely trying to get a rise out of Microsoft, but they sure did. And every time Microsoft responds in kind, they dig themselves a deeper hole.

This week Microsoft launched yet another Apple war ad. They send out “real people” to shop for the best laptop they can find for under $700. A cute, wholesome-looking actress pretends to visit an Apple store and says “I guess I’m just not cool enough for a Mac.”

It’s the best spot ever produced for Microsoft. Very honest and authentic feeling. Unfortunately, it’s based on a no-win strategy. The Microsoft ad actually reinforces Apple’s position in the marketplace… Apple has always been a premium brand that’s not for everyone. That’s not news. So why does Microsoft continue to run ads that help cement that message?

In the Laptop Hunter spot they’re basically admitting that a Mac is what everyone aspires to. If you can’t afford one you settle for a second-best PC. The spot flat-out encourages people to compare Windows-based laptops to Apple laptops, and the more that happens, the more market share Apple will steal.

Fox News did a nine-minute segment about the spot the other day, and Apple’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Sure, there is some low-hanging fruit right now in low-end laptops. But that’s just a short-term message that hinges more on the economic climate than any genuine brand strategy. Not the type of message a #1 player should even consider. Tit for tat works for Apple. Not for Microsoft. The market leader should lead, not follow in its advertising. Besides, you can’t take pot shots at the underdog, it just doesn’t look good.

The fact is, Microsoft’s never had a decent ad campaign before landing at Crispin Porter. On the other hand, Apple has a long history of groundbreaking advertising, from “Think Different” to the iconic iPod spots and now “I’m a PC.”

Apple inspires great advertising because it makes great products. Microsoft… not so much.

I’m particularly amused by the Apple spots that directly pick on the dreadful, Vista Operating System and Microsoft’s  response to the problem.  As long as Microsoft keeps responding to this type of advertising, and escalating the war, Apple can’t lose.  

See ’em here: 

http://www.apple.com/getamac/ads/

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Graham Smith April 5, 2009 at 9:22 am

Thank you for such a well written and insightful article. This debate always humours me, so great to see it all laid out in such a way that really makes Microsoft look pretty lame.

Of course they are not, but in terms of advertising and Apple, they seem destined to just get it wrong.

Awesome
Graham

mikefrizzi April 10, 2009 at 1:45 am

In regards to “Apple has always been a premium brand that’s not for everyone. That’s not news. So why does Microsoft continue to run ads that help cement that message?”

Do you think that the Apple vs. PC ads, where they have a very normal looking justin Long representing Apple, actually moves Apple away from the ‘premium brand’ image they have? It seems they have gone to great lengths to show just how accessible they are as a brand and a product. In my view MS is harnessing this image Apple has created and is reacting to that, rather than to the longstanding perceptions.

Thoughts?

kefwhedge April 10, 2009 at 3:42 am

FANTASTIC!

johnfurgurson April 10, 2009 at 4:03 am

You’re right, MS is definitely reacting to Apple’s ads, without much consideration for anything else. That’s the problem. They’re constantly following Apple’s lead, when it really should be the other way around.

I believe the casting that TBWA did with Justin Long was a good choice because Apple does have a bit of a rep as being snobbish. Both actors are great.

mikefrizzi April 10, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Thanks for the response. I look forward to your next post.

JP April 24, 2009 at 3:31 am

Hey, great post. It’s hard to argue against Apple’s ability to create innovative and well-designed products. They really know how to appeal to people with not just new concepts but attractive final products. Microsoft, as you say, doesn’t quite match Apple in this department. They don’t seem to get it.

Cheers, JP
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