How to Make Vista Cool


We're learning a bit more about Microsoft's planned national $300 million ad campaign to up-brand its core product, Vista. As previously mentioned, Jerry Seinfeld will be the most visible--but perhaps not only--pitchman for the account. Fast Company has a very good story here about the ad firm that will craft MSFT's new image. Among the take-aways, everybody at the Boulder- and Miami-based shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky uses a Mac.

Oh, but it gets even better...

Crispin Porter + Bogusky made its bones doing somewhat gonzo spots like the Burger King fighting chickens and those featuring the creepy "King" clown character. Other big clients in search of a youthful and--to use a favorite advertising word I loathe--"edgy" image are VW, Molson, and Mini Cooper. None are as large as Microsoft, an intensely conservative, boomer-centric company that spends about $1 billion a year on media, according to Fast Company.

But what do you do with a brand that, while dominant in the corporate sector, totally lags behind among the tastemakers who type away on MacBooks in trendy bars and coffee shops? How do we sell Vista on Cap Hill and in Belltown? Those hipsters can sense desperation, like German Shepherds smell fear.

Says one of the Crispin copywriters,

"To try to be cool is to not be cool. To chase cool, you're chasing something that already exists, which means you're always going to be on the wrong side of it, you'll always be following."

In the same vein, the same guy admits of his colleagues,

"You've got a lot of passionate Mac people in here, and they've got to get their head around this thing -- why Windows is genius."

Sounds like an uphill battle. Fast Company writer Danielle Sacks asks whether Crispin's employees will get rid of their ubiquitous iPods and PowerBooks out of loyalty to their new client. She's told,

"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."

So if I'm reading the story correctly, Jerry Seinfeld will soon be on TV, persuading me that Vista isn't chasing Mac, that my OS doesn't have to be a dull, buggy, locked-in system plagued by crashes and threatening error messages. It will enhance my life, but not confine me. It will be a lifestyle accessory and a productivity tool, but it won't make me a slave to fashion. Jerry won't attack Apple directly, so it's not like I'll have to dump all my Mac-loving friends. (Apple has 5-10 percent of the US PC market, depending on what stats you believe; the challenge now is to keep that number from growing.) Microsoft gets along with iPod and iTunes (making money in the licensing), so that's not a fight to pick, either. Rather, he'll gently woo me away from XP by reassuring me that Vista is a warmer, kinder, unpretentious product. Kind of like his old TV show, in other words.

And another thing? Here come reports that Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) will direct Seinfeld in some of the new Vista spots. Gondry's known for whimsical, playful, handcrafted movies (also ads). There's nothing slick, CGI, or corporate about him. Unlike a lot of his youthful fans, he's not an ironist. And Seinfeld, too, eschews hipster sarcasm: He's not too cool to dig for a laugh; he doesn't pretend he's above things; he admits--and makes jokes about--small passions and foibles. Sincerity. That's a quality we can like, one we could plausibly associate with MSFT. But the label only works when applied to a sound product. And many people swear Vista is a disaster.

Still, I'm now sure how all this coheres into a coherent product message. Microsoft has traditionally been about control, power, and market share. We use its OS by default, because everyone else has it. It's the standard option on an affordable PC, because it's (relatively) safe and predictable. For those reasons, we tolerate its large, cumbersome, and rather domineering presence on our desktop. A genial pitchman, quirky director, and edgy ad shop may together create great advertising. But that's not the same thing as writing great software.

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