ANALYSIS: Microsoft reveals PR strategy for XP. As software giant Microsoft gears up for its biggest product launch in years, marketing director Oliver Roll outlines the company's PR strategy to Chris Scott

This week sees Microsoft undertake arguably the biggest product

launch of the year, with the introduction of its Windows XP operating

system. The company claims the product is an advance on the existing

Windows offerings. Visually, it marks a radical departure from the grey

functionality of its predecessors.



Ever since the initial launch of Windows in 1983, advances in product

capability have been mirrored by the repositioning of the Microsoft

brand.



This is something UK marketing director Oliver Roll recognises: 'At the

beginning of the 1990s, PCs were a new phenomenon and our corporate

message was that we were there to make them easier to use. By the

mid-1990s a lot of people had PCs, and the message became telling them

it's a device they can use to reach out to networks and each other. Now

the focus is on realising computers' potential with XP.'



When Windows 95, the firm's last great leap forward in operating

technology, launched, the annual growth in the home PC market was 20 per

cent. Today that has dropped back to five per cent and the PC software

market, which made up 70 per cent of the company's revenue six years

ago, now represents 35 per cent.



The determination of the firm to explore new markets is evident,

although a high level of brand flexibility is required for such sharply

contrasting markets. In March the firm enters the console game market

with the launch of its Xbox, while it is also in the midst of a PR

offensive to compete in the server market, and take on rivals such as

Oracle, which arguably enjoy greater credibility in the business

world.



Microsoft is avowedly proactive in its communications - essential given

the damage inflicted on its corporate reputation by the long-running

anti-trust case still occupying the US courts.



Roll sees the case brought by the US government over Microsoft's alleged

attempts to bully its way to monopoly status as 'based on the way some

believed we acted a long time ago. We have not done anything wrong or

illegal. It's a very different company now and the case has no relevance

today'.



He believes PR played a crucial part in countering the issues faced: 'It

was very successful in changing opinion in the UK and combating

uncontrolled news reporting. It's very exciting and rewarding to see the

effect of good PR.'



Roll adds that the firm went to great lengths to ensure employees were

firmly on-side, receiving regular updates from CEO Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft is renowned for treating employees well - last February, The

Sunday Times ranked it as the second best employer in Britain. Roll sums

up the firm's mantra as 'communicating to make people feel good, and

empowering them to take some risks.'



In addition to internal comms, Roll sees value in a community-minded

attitude: 'Corporate social responsibility is vital as the community

will talk about how good an employer you are and what an asset you are

to the UK'.



Among other charitable feats, Microsoft sponsored the NSPCC's Full Stop

campaign, supporting the charity with the costs of that promotion: 'It

had a huge impact on our reputation in the UK when people discovered we

were involved with it,' Roll claims.



The company remains a big PR spender, despite consolidating during the

past 12 months. In the UK it retains three PR agencies - August. One

Communications, Edelman Public Relations Worldwide and The Red

Consultancy - on an overall marketing roster of seven, culled from more

than 30 a year ago.



'We used to have lots of marketing groups with small funds making it

difficult to pool and do big things,' explains Roll.



It is this new strategy that enabled Microsoft to devote more than

£5m to advertising and PR plans at HMV in Oxford Circus this week

to make the world's fastest music video in support of the XP launch.



Roll warns against retreating from brand promotion in the current

climate: 'In a slowdown, there's a danger that the brand gets invested

in less: we're investing more as there are positive effects to be had.'

Communications is vital to this: 'PR is one of our most important

marketing tools. It's a cost-effective way of getting broad awareness

and coverage and reaching target audiences,' he says.



He is cautious about cutting back on spending, and warns: 'The right

deal for you can become the wrong deal for your agencies. You'll get

more value for money from them if they passionately believe in the

company rather than by squeezing them on their fees.'



The flurry of publicity surrounding the launch of XP - 200 media outlets

had already been accredited a week before the launch - will keep the

agencies busy. Added to that the campaign to build consumer awareness of

the software's technical requirements is already underway, in an attempt

to pre-empt the sort of complaints about the product that have dogged

previous Microsoft packages. They have a job on their hands.



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