Microsoft broke its latest ad campaign last Saturday before a football game: "It's a great time to be a family" pushed the company's hardware and software as technologies that bring people together and connect seamlessly.

This is Microsoft's latest homage to Steve Jobs and Apple (the entire "I'm a PC" campaign having set new standards for effectively promoting a competitor's products), as it mimics the integrated, digital hub strategy that Apple has been pursuing for over a decade. There's one difference, though: it's not true.

Microsoft's products don't work together seamlessly or reliably; in fact, if they're a family, the relatives don't look like each other, act similarly or cooperatively, or regularly find reasons for get-togethers. They often don't even like each other. The only unifying principle behind their relationships is their parent's willingness to buy their way into a variety of markets for which they have little to add.

It was first and foremost an OEM supplier, with its Windows OS once the backbone of most computing devices on the planet. This made the company bazillions of dollars and allowed to confuse its somewhat serendipitous success in one market with a God-given right and ability to sell anything, anywhere.

Just imagine if Microsoft had focused the last decade on making OS that was constantly better, more flexible, and truly more interoperable, instead of giving the world mp3 players, game consoles, Internet search, and smartphones. A world without Vista but with platforms that inspired hardware designers. Someplace where "Microsoft inside" meant something cool and real for computers, cars, appliances, and everything else that thinks when you push a button.

The latest campaign almost suggests such an alternate reality. In fact, I find it tinged with an element of sadness (wholly unintended) because of this context.

A laundry list of "A Team" agency players are responsible for it -- Porter & Bogusky, Starcom Mediavest Group, Wunderman, and R/GA -- yet nowhere in those vast ranks of smart, creative, and well-intentioned experts was there a single soul who had the guts to tell the Emperor that he wasn't wearing clothes. There's just too much money in doing what a rich, self-adoring client wants done.

But the campaign isn't true.

What could it have looked like? Here are three thought-starter ideas:

  • Unique Solutions For Different Needs -- Play to the premise that tools aren't supposed to look the same, and that they don't really need to work together. Does a best smartphone in existence also have to be the best music player, or have the capacity to display spreadsheets? I don't know how to do it, but the case for specific things suited to specific things could connote proprietary excellence and value.
  • Your Stuff, Your Brand -- Microsoft touched on this idea when it credited faux consumers as having designed Windows 7 because it met their particular needs (imagine how much more powerful the campaign would have been if it were true). But there's real power in the idea of independence, both as a guide for functional benefits and as a description of emotional attributes of ownership and control. Instead of being the "other" Apple it could assert an anti-lifestyle dictating lifestyle position.
  • Launch Microsoft Makers -- Mozilla, Facebook, even Google have probably thanked their lucky stars for years now, considering Microsoft never got on the open source bandwagon. Imagine if the company had actually decided to empower and harness the creative energy of its installed base -- its incomprehensibly huge universe of users -- and engaged with them on customizing, improving, and inventing software. Think of how many businesses it could have created (which were instead born outside the Microsoft ecosystem). Why couldn't it start now? The Makers movement is bigger than ever before.

No advertising, no matter how creative or brilliantly executed, can make up for the fact that Microsoft still hasn't hit on doing things that match its ability to waste tons of money on promoting its imaginary brand benefits. My prediction is that "It's a great time to be a family" will join the last half-dozen campaigns that took a lot of effort and cost loads, only to be promptly forgotten.

Its marketing will be doomed until somebody tells it the truth, and somebody inside the place chooses to listen.

What do you think?

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