Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brand Rebuilding in the Computer Age

Things are tough all over. Tiger Woods was recently outed as a philandering, self-entitled cad whose cheated on his wife with dozens, perhaps hundreds of women. Meanwhile Toyota's cars have fallen prey to random bursts of acceleration that put the lives of their drivers and other motorists at risk. And the car manufacturer, it seems, has no clear ideas as to why.

Tiger has gone on TV recently with an apology speech. Toyota seems to be still flailing about without a definitive answer as to why there cars suddenly take off and fail to respond to the brakes or to drivers taking their feet of the gas pedals.

In spite of Tiger's assurances that he will be returning to the Buddhist principles that were apparently once his original core values and Toyota happily offering to shave an inch or so off the acceleration pedals on all affected models, both Tiger and Toyota, it would seem still have a long way to go to rebuild the public's trust in their respective brands.

In the computer world there are no brands who are currently under this kind of fire. However both Tiger and Toyota could perhaps learn a thing from Bill Gates and the good people of Microsoft.

PCs have long been branded with the tag of being cold and impersonal while the Apple Mac brand has been celebrated and practically adored for it's "user friendliness." Apple has the commercials with the uber-cool hipster, played by Justin Long as the Mac and the uptight nerd played by John Hodgman as the PC. Apple has Steve Jobs, the lovable, quirky ex-hippie, while Microsoft has Bill Gates, the computer nerd turned ultra-rich cyber tycoon. Never mind that Jobs is practically just as rich and the Gates Foundation is one of the most active and generous charitable foundations in the world. It's just conveniently easier to read Jobs as the fun loving "user friendly" cyber-hippie and Gates as some kind of cold heart computer capitalist.

It's a brand identification that has more or less endured since the earliest days of the Internet/Computer age. Along the way it's been reinforced by Apple introducing such ultra-cool, must have products as the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad and Microsoft introducing Vista, an operating system with features intended to restrict users from copying protected digital media. Talk about buzz kill!

So in what could be seen as an equivalent to Tiger Wood's apology speech or Toyota's recall, Microsoft has released Windows 7, a new operating system, which according to Gates himself is designed to be more, "user-centric."

Aided by a self-consciously irreverent ad campaign, that emphasizes the systems responsiveness to user demands, Windows 7 has been relatively well received overall. CNET awarded it 4.5 out of 5 stars and PC Magazine called it a "big improvement," over Vista. Windows 7 has also become the highest ever selling pre-order product on Amazon.com.

So it would seem that out of the gate, anyway, Windows 7 can be regarded as a success. Whether it will help to re-brand Microsoft as hip, cool or user friendly, of course remains to be seen.

If their current efforts to rebuild their existing brand names come up short, perhaps Tiger and Toyota could take a further cue from Gates and re-brand themselves altogether. Tiger Woods as no longer the smiling, wholesome, good boy but as an unshaven, strutting, Ed Hardy clad rogue who loves them and leaves them. And Toyota, as no longer the go to option for those seeking safe, practical and economically sound transportation, but as the car of choice for thrill seeking adventurers who like to take their lives into their own hands.

Hey, I'm not saying it's gonna work, but if Microsoft can seemingly succeed in putting itself forward as hip, irreverent and user-friendly, anything's possible.

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