A man could go crazy with metaphors when trying to describe the historical relationship between Microsoft and Apple. But let's stay with the present. News that Microsoft has hired Crispin Porter & Bogusky (CP&B) to hip itself out, is much like a scrawny nerd who, after two years of constant bullying, returns from summer camp with muscles and a determined anger.
While many marketers are loath to bet against CP&B, I must say that just because that nerd has muscles, doesn't mean he knows how to use them.
The fact that Microsoft finds itself in this hole is entirely its own fault. Every marketer worth his or her salary will tell you that corporate marketing is very much like a political campaign, and for two years, Apple has run a series of highly effective (if thoroughly annoying) attack ads, which are well-known as Mac versus PC. I don't know the entire compendium of advertisements deployed by Microsoft during this time, but if there were any that fought back against Apple, I did not see them. The best retorts, unsurprisingly, came from Microsoft fans (or Apple antagonists) posting spoofs on YouTube.
And, yes, few today consider Microsoft cool. But this move - if it is to be successful - is not about the Microsoft of yore (desktop spreadsheets, that annoying Office animated paperclip, and Internet Explorer). It's about the Microsoft of the future (Surface computing, Xbox 360, and cloud computing).
I assume that Microsoft knows what every company should know: Brands are much more malleable and interpreted differently by generations than they were in the past. Companies can go from hip to lame to hip again without making it through a decade. I imagine this cultural shift keeps Facebook and MySpace executives up at night. Marketing plays a huge role in this, but its success also depends on what products Microsoft decides to make the cornerstone of its future.
If Microsoft wants to be cool, the attention to marketing can't just come at the front end; it has to apply the discipline to its product-development cycle. A recent Fast Company article, soliciting quotes from the CP&B team, underscores that sentiment.
When asked if the famously Apple-supporting agency plans to force staffers to switch from Macs to Windows computers, CP&B co-executive creative director Rob Reilly says, "It's not a matter of forcing people. It's getting them to want to use it. If you can't, you're not going to do great advertising."
That's how Microsoft can find its way to cool. If the company gets its marketing team involved early in the product-development cycle, and creates products people will love, the future generation might look at Mac versus PC ads as a quaint version of how things once were.