It was only a few years ago; I think probably 5 or 7 years, that the global giant Microsoft was ensconced in controversy over a large anti-trust legal battle. There were articles upon articles about Microsoft and Bill Gates and a lot of them shed a negative light on the company. As a result, Microsoft was seen by a large segment of the public, as bullies, monopolists, giants, software hogs and other similar attributes.
Fast forward 7 years and things have changed. A lot of these negative brand attributes today are probably applicable more to Microsoft’s chief competitor, Google. For example people have low trust about Google with their data, they see Google as too big a conglomerate, sometimes dictating terms and often refusing to refine some of their good products based on feedback (Google docs is a good example). And Microsoft – how are they seen?
Brand perceptions of Microsoft on a global basis (and even India) have undergone a sea change. First some generic global points and then followed by some India specific points.
Overall, it has been a strong combination of product improvements and as I would like to term it – a change of heart. Not many professionals realize, that the amazing philanthropic work Bill and Melinda Gates have been doing in their personal life globally has had the biggest rub off on the Microsoft brand and has been a key ingredient in the “perceptual” change that has happened in people’s minds about Microsoft. The Gates Foundation has been at the forefront of effective contribution to lasting global problems. Whether it be malnutrition, HIV, Polio, Housing and Education. Some of Bills contributions would make national budgets seem tame. And this has not been a one-off from the Gates family. It has developed into a long-term vision of giving back to the world. What Bill/Microsoft gained from the world, they are now giving back and in the process making sure even the less relevant, downtrodden and globally sidelined people, have an opportunity or have a cure for what ails them. And when there is a genuine contributor, the world takes note. Bill, from being perceived as a brilliant engineer, with exciting programming skills, interesting ideas and sudden wealth, running a monstrous corporation; has moved to someone who is sensitive, socially conscious of his/her responsibilities, wants to give back, understands the natural cycle of giving and receiving and more importantly – is not just a brilliant computer engineer with wealth – but a human being with a generous heart. See his twitter account and the bulk of his 495 tweets since 2009 have all centered on themes of global issues and problems, and how to effectively eradicate them. But more importantly, this stance of contribution of a change of heart has not come across as some communications exercise. The entire effort of the Bill and Melinda Foundation has come across as, in one word “genuine”. And when someone is genuine, whether media takes note or not, whether governments take note or not, people notice, in their hearts and in their minds – consciously or subconsciously. Some are brave enough to accept that a person can change; some continue to live in their own images of others, more because they find it difficult to change and update themselves.
I purposely use Bill and Microsoft in the same breath (like in the previous paragraph). Because when a leader undergoes this kind of transformation and communicates it through his actions; the brand that he has built and created, not only benefits, but its entire “perceived framework” in people’s minds, gets transformed. All of a sudden Microsoft, the big bad guy, has a human face around it and has all the positive attributes of being human. It’s no longer seen as a dominator, but more a contributor. Its monopoly with Word, Excel and PowerPoint is not seen as a monopoly, but as bringing significant value to people’s lives – based on product superiority and a top class feedback mechanism. Now if all brand owners around the world understood, how “genuine” ness, contribution and value creation, contributes to their brand strength, they would move from simply money-making (which make no mistake, is important) to a more holistic value creation cycle. Not only does this have a positive brand impact, but creates a win-win situation between large corporations, the society’s they serve and gain from, and the world we all live in at large.
Now lets move to the India specific point that I mentioned. While Apple prides itself on “Designed in California” (of course while being manufactured in China, ha), it has been painfully slow in getting its products out in international markets. For example, the iPad reached Indian shores 12 months after it was launched in the US. The Indians noted this step motherly treatment and sales have not taken off. In contrast Microsoft came in years ago, Bill made several trips here and acknowledged the Indian contribution to making Microsoft a global success. He valued the engineers that worked on developing world-class products like Microsoft office and the company was quick off the ground to recognize local talent and set up large centers (which service Microsoft globally) here in India. The result – Indians love Microsoft (and also get a nice ego boost with all the lovely recognition Bill gives to Indian talent) and so many Indians are willing to pay premium prices for Microsoft Products and they sell pretty well, for an overall poor country (by first world standards still). And truly it has not just been India. Microsoft has got over being “American” (Apple is needlessly stuck in California) and has made inroads in most countries of the world, not just product wise, employee wise as well, making it a multi cultural and truly global corporation.
Coming from the brand to products – undoubtedly Bing is already giving Google search a run for its money. Interestingly Microsoft has (finally) been churning out some super products. Windows Live 2011 linked with your Windows Live account gives you some awesome software free (check out their email desktop client and photo integration). Then there is 25 GB (the highest cloud storage globally given free) on Sky Drive (of course it badly needs integration into the windows explorer folder…but currently Gladinet does that for you free) and Windows Live Mesh can help you with cloud sync. And now recently Office Docs Online is quite good as well (can move faster though). Windows 7 on mobile is going to be a hit, if what I saw recently soon hits the market. Another hidden treasure in the office package, which the majority of people do not understand, but is a superlative software is OneNote. Some creative communications around such a product would effectively bring out its cool and useful qualities. But we are talking of the mind now (products, software, efficiency and engineers), when truly the transformation has been one of the heart (contribution, values and change). Finally Brand Microsoft has a human face. This is true brand strategy.Note: The author has not been contacted, paid or solicited by Microsoft or any of its companies. You can read Dennis’ comments on the Apple iPad by clicking: http://wonderthoughts.com/2010/06/17/the-ipad-an-innovation-that-transforms/