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
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
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
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.