Does Microsoft Need More Exposure?

That is the question being asked by an article on Betanews today. Though the article is phrased to be a question of the franchising of retail stores, it really asks the question I have in the title. I really had to hold myself back from exploding in the comments section, as more exposure of the kind Redmond does is hardly what Microsoft needs. The company gets way too much exposure, with the painful  reminder of it each and every second Tuesday of the month.

Before I go further, I know, as I have spoken to some that read me…though not completely it seems,  I am seen as a constant attacker of all things from Redmond. For them, and others who have not been along for the complete ride: I am not a Microsoft basher, save for when the company deserves it. It has made many good products, and I give credit where due, but I also believe that the company makes many mistakes, over and over, and is too lethargic to repair them before the mistakes are attacked. If it were not so, we would see improvements in the Internet Exploder browser, and coincidently, I would probably stop calling it Internet Exploder. Things broken in IE 6 would have been corrected without delay in IE7, before they were ever to have a chance of being attacked. The same with IE 8.  And not to sound completely prophetic, but I’ll wager that IE9 will feature some of the same exploits that have been found in every other iteration of Internet Exploder. (It really draws stares when you are attending a Microsoft function and use that phrase in polite Microsoft company!)

If you believe Mid-March job postings, Microsoft is preparing to launch two new retail stores, in Denver and San Diego, bringing the count to four. That’s not exactly rapid expansion, given two other stores opened in October — Mission Viejo, Calif. and Scottsdale, Arizona. Microsoft has to move more aggressively into retail, if it’s going to rebuild its brand image and establish an appealing digital lifestyle for the twenty-tens.

The company has an image problem that smart marketing and savvy retailing can repair. Yesterday, at MSNBC, Bill Briggs called Apple “fresh” and Microsoft “frumpy”. The nut graph: “Microsoft, to some, appears a tad flabby in the middle — a Chrysler Town & Country driver with a 9 p.m. bedtime. Apple, in some eyes, looks sleeker and younger — a hipster in ragtop Beemer packed with chic friends sporting mobile toys.”

Part of that problem is by design. Microsoft wants to appear staid, monolithic, and serious, with not the least bit of frivolity in the mix. After all, the company is trying to be today what IBM was in the sixties and the seventies. IBM, then and now, said business. Microsoft wants you to associate their name with business, and all that implies (including profit!).

Microsoft is getting the marketing part down. Bing and Windows 7 TV commercials are remarkably good (I love the French one, by the way). But marketing alone won’t fix Microsoft’s image problems. All successful brands sell a lifestyle, something companies like Apple, IKEA, Pepsico and even Walmart excel at. Retailing is the other part of the solution. Like Apple and Sony, Microsoft needs retail stores to hawk its products, improve customer satisfaction and sell a lifestyle. That’s not going to happen with a few stores opening every year.

Much as I would like to disagree about the French commercial, I agree. However, I would add that, if not for the very comely French girl (she’s got a great accent if she’s not French, or at least French-Canadian) the commercial would only be ho-hum. The reason is, for those who follow these things, Windows 7 was not designed by her, or anyone else outside of Redmond. It’s nice to believe it, but its all fertilizer of the worst smelling kind. If it were the case, Microsoft would have not completely gotten rid of the classic drill down menu, leaving nearly everyone who has any sense of order to look elsewhere for a way to organize their program choices in Windows 7.

I also take issue with the successful brands selling a lifestyle. GE doesn’t sell a lifestyle. Disney doesn’t sell a lifestyle. Successful companies help their customers fulfill a need. As a successful salesman, I would say that drawing attention to, or identifying, a need is what the best companies do. All Microsoft needs to do is sell competence. If you use their products, they will help you accomplish your tasks without any difficulties. No more than that is needed.

So why not franchise? Apple wouldn’t do it. But franchising is highly congruous with Microsoft’s long-loving channel ways. Rather than compete with retailers and resellers, Microsoft should make some of them part of the family. The company already has robust channel programs in place. Surely Microsoft could create from that foundation a franchise program faster than the time needed to build 20 or 30 new stores on its own.

I’m not talking authorized dealers, but real Microsoft Stores. Malls are filled with, say, AT&T or T-Mobile stores and their authorized dealers. They confuse consumers, and the approach is not a clear, clean way to build a lifestyle brand. Like other franchises, the stores would conform to design and operational standards set by the franchiser. Like McDonalds franchises, these Microsoft Stores would be indistinguishable from company-owned shops. Although a smart Microsoft would give franchisees some pricing latitude and perhaps opportunity to offer additional services.

I see this as a recipe for disaster. After all, what do these stores even do? Can you take your computer in to the store to show an intelligent person what you mean when you are describing a problem over the phone?  To me, that is precisely why I would go into a Microsoft store for any reason that would involve the exchange of money – and at that, I would insist on using my free support time first!

For anything else, I’ll buy it elsewhere, most probably online. Less garbage, less difficulties with getting there, parking, moving through the crowded mall, and lastly, no “but would you also like this?” I don’t need anyone trying to oversell me.

Timing is excellent:

There is plenty of available retail space — even in shopping malls — presumably for more reasonable prices than, say, two years ago.
The Obama Administration is looking for ways to stimulate small business growth; franchising could be good PR as much as good retailing.
Microsoft’s financing arm could help worthy franchise applicants to secure financing in these tough-borrowing times, which, again, would be good PR.

Franchises would offer many benefits to Microsoft:

1) They would generate additional revenue, in the upfront franchise cost and any cut Microsoft might choose to take from the stores.

2) Microsoft could rapidly build up its retail presence, assuming there are businesses looking to buy the franchises (Surely there would be).

3) The company could more rapidly learn what does and what does not work in retailing and apply those lessons to its operations. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer claims that running Yahoo search provides scale for improving search queries. The same scale principle can be applied to improving the retail experience.

Microsoft could (and should) continue building its own stores even as franchisees open others. My advice: Set a target for what number of stores would have enough geographic reach, then end the franchising program. Ideally, Microsoft should want more company stores than franchises. They are but a means to end — scaling the retail operation faster. Microsoft could inform potential franchisees from the start that the program would eventually end. Those folks buying in early could get something not available later on. That would be incentive for them to participate.

The other option is for Microsoft to build retail stores faster. But at present pace, Microsoft isn’t moving fast enough.

As someone on Betanews stated, the only products that really need a place to be demo’ed are the Zunes. And they don’t really sell because they are seen as second rate, or simply rip-offs, of a great Apple design. Being from the generation that coined the phrase rip-off, it does mean something to me that I perceive the Zune as nothing more than a Microsoft “me too” rip off. It is further driven home by the fact that the Zune is kludgey, and somewhat stodgy, whereas the Apple products are sleek, elegant, innovative, and of higher quality. ( and I’m not that big an Apple fan, just a fan of good design)

So, unless Microsoft is going to start offering expert advice and repairs on the spot for the inadequacies of their software, what’s the f^%$#&g point!?

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