Why does Microsoft keep copying Apple?

Within the last 48 hours, I’ve now heard that Microsoft has launched a tablet and will open their first store outside the US, right here in Toronto. To me, both are direct and desperate copies of Apple.  And both are mistakes that won’t really help the brand garner any consumer love, but rather keeping it stuck at the “Like It” stage.

“It’s a nice reader, but there’s nothing on the iPad I look at and say, ‘Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.’  “

Bill Gates, 26 months ago.

To put all my potential biases on the table, I have an iPhone, iPad and a Mac desk top, but I also have a PC, both desktop and an ultra book. So,I’d say I’m fairly balanced between Apple and PC.   But there are two major differences in how I feel about each:

  1. My PC is functionally efficient.  It’s smart, easy, just makes sense.  When I get emails from people using a PC, there’s no risk of conversion difficulties.  I prefer word to pages etc.  But, while I like my PC, I absolutely LOVE my i-stuff and get excited every time I use them.  And, I can’t wait for what’s next.
  2. In no way do I connect my PC to the Microsoft brand.  My PC is a Toshiba.  Microsoft might think they are the PC, and tried to convince us with those “I’m a PC” ads, but that did nothing for me.  The only moment I thought about Microsoft was the 12 minutes it took me to load Office and the 23 seconds it took me to file away the box.

Brand success comes when you find what the consumer wants, and then match it up against something different that you do better than anyone else.  What does this new tablet that is so different from what’s already in the market?  

For any brand, copying just makes you seem desperate, weak and uncertain of who you really are as a brand.  Here are the three ways that Microsoft has tried to copy Apple.

Copycat Mistake #1:  Getting into the Tablet Business Feels like Zune

Getting into hardware is a big gamble and not something that fits with Microsoft’s strengths.  To be a success, you either have to be better, different or cheaper and this feels like none of those.  Just like the Zune, it feels as though they are late and aren’t really offering anything that’s a game-changer to the category.  Like most categories at the stage where tablets are, until someone really shakes it up, the next few years are likely all about constant small innovation, new news each year with Apple leading the way on the high-end and Samsung’s cost innovation will likely squeeze Microsoft right out of the category.  The analysts are so excited by the launch that the MSFT stock price is down 1.3%.

Copycat Mistake #2:  Microsoft Stores Don’t Have the Drawing Power

Microsoft is launching a new store in Toronto, which will be their 12th store.  Everything in the Microsoft stores feel like a direct copy of the Apple store format.  Open concept and instead of a genius bar, they have technician helpers.   But the products in stores aren’t all Microsoft, but rather other PC brands like Toshiba, Dell or HP.  Doesn’t that really just make it another Best Buy?  For these stores succeed, they’ll have to come up with something different or they just won’t have the drawing power to generate enough sales to justify the store.  About five times this year, I’ve walked past an Apple store just before it was about to open and it had a line of about 10-15 people already waiting to get in.  Any time of the day, they draw a crowd.  That’s brand power. On the other hand, Microsoft has had to resort to free concert tickets to generate a line up for opening day.

Copycat #3:  I’m a PC was an Advertising Disaster

Some of the best advertising of the last decade was “I’m a Mac…and I’m a PC”  capturing our imagination with hundreds of clever spots.  At the early stages of that campaign, I was in a crowded bar with that constant hum of noise that a bar produces.  All of a sudden the place went silent.  All the patrons looked up at the TV for 29 seconds of an “I’m a Mac” and we all laughed and then carried on, back to the constant hum of bar noise.  That’s a powerful brand.  But Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” response was a disaster.  It felt desperate, contrived and just awkward.  Almost embarrassing.  These are just bad.

For all the power and the efforts over the last 30 years, Microsoft still feels like it’s stuck at the Liked stage, never achieving any real love.  At their height, they had a positional power of the early 1990s with a dominant Windows presence.  They destroyed every competitor in sight.  Poor Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3.  Even then, there was very little emotion between the brand and the consumer.  Instead, they exerted their monopolistic power, doing nothing for the consumer.

Beloved Brands would have died for what Microsoft had back in the 1990s.  They would have begun to listen to what consumers wanted and started to build their brand around the life of the consumer, being at the forefront of what the consumer wanted, giving it to them before they even knew they wanted it.  They would have found ways over the years to surprise and delight their consumer base with true innovation, style and design.  They would have shifted their focus towards creating a brand image with perceived quality that tugs at the heart instead of just relying on real quality that feeds the mind.  They would have put all their focus on the entire experience of the consumer, not just standing behind their better mousetrap and the monopoly of Intellectual Property.  Wait a second, this is starting to sound a lot like Apple.   If only Microsoft had copied the Apple strategy beneath the surface, instead of just trying to do the same tactics as Apple (a tablet, a store and a TV ad) then maybe they would have turned their positional power of the 1990s into a Beloved Brand.

For those who want to laugh, here’s the best of the “I’m a Mac” ads.

5 thoughts on “Why does Microsoft keep copying Apple?

  1. Physics teaches us that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
    Apple already occupies the counter-culture, cool space, and exhibits high degrees of customers being loyal to the brand. Apple is known for its ‘cool’ design and ease of use. Apple is fundamentally a consumer company and gets rewarded by investors with a relatively high muliple/market valuation.
    MS would be smart to avoid trying to directly emulate Apple’s formula (thus competing with Apple on Apple’s terms), and, instead, try to create its own space by emphasizing its business/enterprise level advantages and how, for example, its software/database technology can turn social media into measureable competitive advantage.

    • Ron, couldn’t agree more. I could have written this same story for RIM, who also has tried to be cool and counter cultural. I kept thinking the whole time….this feels like RIM all over again. And I’m going to steal your physics line!!! I have to, it’s just that good.

  2. Personally I’ve never felt marketing (or design for that matter) were ever particularly important at MS. Their efforts felt like they were made under duress versus tactics that MS truly believed could help them differentiate. The comparison to RIM is stark because both brands marketing efforts feel like those conjured up by engineers not marketers. For all the appropriate digs your article makes about Microsoft stores, I must credit them for (finally) getting their Mobile product right. It is not derivative of Apple – which is refreshing – and the new tiled interface is actually quite slick. Mobile is proof that when the stakes are high enough, MS has the scale to sometimes crack the problem. Now if only they’d crack some of the other issues your article highlights.

  3. I am no Microsoft fan (I’m an Apple snob, as my wife calls me), but u think your criticism is a little too harsh.

    Their business strategy worked perfectly for 15 years or more. They dominated the market they wanted to own. Their downfall was getting too big and looking at ways to tweak their wins rather than look for entirely new markets. They are hardly alone in that sense. The majority of Fortune 500 companies are on that list for only a limited time.

    Apple has now hit the critical mass where they will start to make some of those same mistakes. Indeed, there are already signs in the market that this is happening. It makes me sad, but it’s true.

    Apple has created entirely new markets in it’s industry. Big markets. Microsoft has two options: ignore the revenue potential or try to get a piece of it. What would you do? Zune, you are right, was a disaster. Their only flaw their, though, was not realizing it sooner and killing the project and trying something new. Try, fail, try again. They have gotten too big to remember that lesson. Maybe they can get it back, but it won’t likely happen with their current leadership.

    Last thought: I disagree that the I’m a PC ads were a waste of money. They didn’t resonate with me. I’m a Mac. But they did hit with a core audience: those people who are PCs and were tired of being mocked. They provided the rational they needed to justify their decision to be Mac haters. They fed their community. It was also a little ego on Balmer’s part I’m sure.

    Enjoyed the post, thanks for sharing your views.

  4. Pingback: The Microsoft Tablet Disaster was so easy to Predict « Beloved Brands

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