Why "Smoked by Windows Phone" works
Microsoft just kicked off a new Windows Phone advertising campaign — "Smoked by Windows Phone" — that pits its devices against others in everyday smartphone tasks. As my esteemed colleague Tom Warren points out, it's the latest advertisement in a string of recent sharp-tongued efforts that Microsoft is using to blast its competitors. I'm not a fan of some of Microsoft's uncharitable, needlessly hostile, and deeply unfunny anti-Google spots, but I think the new Windows Phone campaign has some obvious strengths that Microsoft ought to capitalize on.
For years, I've believed that Microsoft's mindshare has been hampered by a lack of a physical presence in the consumer retail world. Microsoft has allowed its image to be managed by workplace IT departments, indifferent salespeople at third-party retail stores, or dubious TV spots made by Apple. (As someone who's been compared to John Hodgman in appearance — I'm looking at you Mr. Ricker — I can confirm that for many, Apple's PC persona is more recognizable than anything Microsoft's produced over the years.) Microsoft may have a dominating market share in the OS game, for now, but it's way behind in the mobile race and has few foot soldiers advancing its cause. Microsoft is going to lose the long-term game if it can't get people to see its products on their own terms.
While some scoffed at the idea of a "Microsoft Store," I embraced it. Why? Because Microsoft needs its own people evangelizing its products. Redmond shouldn't trust its brand in the hands of modestly paid teenagers at Best Buy who probably don't really know or care all that much about Windows or Windows Phone — I should know, because I used to be one of them. There are certainly many knowledgeable and skilled salespeople out there, but let's be honest, the average floor hand isn't going to be a Windows evangelist in the way Microsoft needs them to be. Meanwhile, Apple is years ahead with its modern, iconic, and genuinely great retail store presence. Sure, you can buy a MacBook at Best Buy now, but why go there if you can just as easily head over to the source?
Microsoft's new ads work because — aggressive grandstanding aside — they show off its products in a way the company has neglected to do for years. They put friendly, knowledgeable Microsoft employees who know exactly how to show off Microsoft products in front of seemingly regular people. The company may have started to realize this need when it came out with its devious-but-clever "Windows Mojave" experiment to counter Vista's horrendous public record: the ads showed people who were charmed by a supposedly new "Windows Mojave" OS, when in actuality they were just looking at Vista. How did they become charmed by what some have claimed is one of the worst Windows iterations in history? Because Microsoft showed people what their products can actually do, rather than letting someone else do it for them.
For the record, I'm not a marketing expert. I'm sure there are many talented people who know what they are doing either within Microsoft, or outside of it, that have particular evidence to back up their marketing strategies. But from where I stand -- as a former retail goon, a Windows user, a technophile, and now, a technology journalist -- I truly believe that for Microsoft to succeed, it just has show people what its products can already do. The next version of Windows Phone may bring it in-line with the now-mature Android and iOS, but Microsoft's already got a great product in its own right.
To paraphrase John Gruber's comments in Episode 2 of On The Verge: if Microsoft, Google, and Apple had all come out with their mobile platforms in 2007, the playing field might have looked at lot more even. But for consumers in this decade, 2007 doesn't matter. If Microsoft really wants people to love Windows Phone, then it needs to show them face-to-face.