Microsoft is not a company best-known for its customer-friendly approach to obsolescence.
Many people talk of the pain of the sudden inability to have documents they've created make sense using newer versions of the software used to create them, and they begrudge Bill Gates every cent they fork over - yet do it anyway and delight over the new functions.
But that's not a companywide truth. Microsoft's Xbox is coming out with a new model, the Xbox 360, but that doesn't mean that the game system's earlier adopters are being left in the cold. Last week's PRWeek news story on the event Microsoft was to hold in the Mojave desert for users of the older model showed that Microsoft understood the value of these customers and wanted to make sure they stayed loyal to the brand - enough, hopefully, to eventually pay the $300 or so required for the Xbox 360.
Obsolescence is such a force in consumer packaged goods that even as the marketing department is coming up with a launch campaign, another department is planning obsolescence for the very product the marketing team hasn't even figured out how to launch yet.
Some industries are guiltier than others. The cell-phone and credit-card industries in particular are notoriously devoted to the practice of aggressive customer acquisition through introductory deals and offers, and a customer retention program that seems largely based on contract lock-ins in the case of the cell-phone industry, and a lack of ongoing communication in anything other than statement-stuffers in the case of the credit-card industry. (These are generalizations, of course, though plenty of people have discovered that the credit card or bank account a particularly aggressive recruitment effort had persuaded them to adopt had quietly been phased out, along with its benefits.) All the while, those who hadn't yet signed up were being offered tantalizing benefits.
Xbox's effort seems like a genuine attempt to avoid that kind of bitterness and resentment from those who put their trust in the brand in the early days. But, says Greg Brooks, principal of marketing consultancy West Third Group, "The time to tell your customers you love them is not when you're cheating on them. If this was all Microsoft was doing, it would fail miserably. But it has been aggressive in making Xbox a kick-ass platform."
There lies one of the keys to successfully bringing the customer through several product cycles: making great products. Planned obsolescence has two approaches - making every new iteration an order of magnitude greater than its predecessor, or treating the customer so well they will put up with incremental swap-outs.
While Microsoft's campaign for the former has some great PR at its core, it's in the second method that PR comes into its own. Existing customers don't care if the messages they receive come from PR, direct mail, or any other discipline - as far as they're concerned, it's all customer service. While the direct-marketing discipline has long hogged the ongoing customer relationship, direct mail does not always a relationship make. PR is enjoying a renaissance in the world of two-way communications, and its speed and nimbleness make it the ideal tool for helping customers feel loved throughout product cycles - whether they choose to upgrade or not.