Posted by: Peter Burrows on April 9, 2009
Microsoft just posted the third of its “Laptop Hunter” ads, in which the cameras follow consumers as they shop for a free laptop. Here it is:
Clearly, after years of taking a total beating on the advertising front from Apple, Microsoft has hit on a winning campaign. First, Lauren uttered the now-famous line—“I’m not cool enough to be a Mac person”—giving price-conscious shoppers permission to buy a plain old PC and retain their pride. Giampaulo maintained the theme. Fab Euro-nerds like him usually use Macs, but he came off as more pragmatic and less self-consumed. And the Jackson’s also seem like they could well be Mac people. My point: while Microsoft could have done anti-Apple ads that celebrate PC buyers at the expense of Apple owners, it didn’t take this easy, populist path. Rather, it’s making its best case in years that while Macs are cool, a PC is a perfectly viable—and smart—choice.
No doubt, this is still marketing. There’s no mention of Vista anywhere in these ads, and there’s plenty of people (including Arik) who suggest Lauren, Gianpaulo and the Jackson’s won’t be happy once they start using their chosen PCs.
Still, you’ve got to give Microsoft credit. This is actually Phase III of a three-year campaign to re-introduce consumers to Windows, says Windows product marketing chief Brad Brooks. They came up with the “story line” a year ago, when Vista awfulness was still a main tech story and Windows 7 was more than a year off.
The plan was to start with an ice-breaker, meant to humanize Microsoft and get consumers curious in the company once again. Those were the Jerry Seinfeld ads. Then came "I'm a PC" ads, designed to show the vast diversity of PC users, and "Rookie" ads in which cute kids showed off features of Vista that most people don't even know exist.
This round of ads is designed to show off the breadth of the Windows ecosystem, and emphasize the greater variety of choices available. "There is an 'i-Way', and there’s 'your way'," says Brooks. "That’s a big part of our story." As the campaign continues, Microsoft will try to emphasize that low price isn't the only advantage. In one spot, the volunteer will be get a price limit of $2000.
There will be six ads in all, which should remain on the air for around three months. All of them were shot in the LA area in mid-January. Current events helped inform the spots. With the economy tanking, Microsoft decided to play the price card more strongly. “Obviously, the emphasis on price gets stepped up in an economy like this one," says David Webster, Microsoft's GM of brand marketing. He adds that it was a good day when Apple failed to introduce a cheaper laptop at MacWorld, but instead came out with a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro with a hefty $2,700 sticker price. That's the one that Lauren briefly considered. “The fact that it’s one quarter of the price [of the PC she chose] doesn't hurt.”
[By the way, he says Apple's snarky "I'm a Mac" ads that centered on Microsoft's big ad campaign was a mistake. “That was not a particularly good move for them--which is why they didn’t run those ads very long," offers Webster. "Their ads work better when they are about their products. They're less effective when they are about our ads. That may work with the fanboys, but it could turn other people off." Indeed, rather than make believe shoppers hadn't been watching John Hodgeman make fun of it for years, Microsoft decided to try to use those "I'm a Mac" ads to its advantage. "Apple has spent $400 million or so over the past two years, in an effort to cement people’s ideas about PCs and Macs. We felt we could run with that."]
Why do the Laptop Hunter ads work so well? For me, they feel genuine--precisely the quality so many Microsoft ads lack, and so many Apple ads have. But I wanted to see how deep that genuineness ran. I asked Webster about the controversy that flared when it became known that Lauren was a part-time actress--the idea being that she'd been hired and scripted. Webster insists it's not so. He says she didn't know Microsoft was behind the giveaway, and that Microsoft didn't know she was a part-time actress until after the fact.
I also asked Webster whether any of these volunteers (they were approached by what they thought was a market research firm) ended up actually picking a Mac. “Nope--and we did take that risk,” he says. “We asked them what budget they had. And we picked budgets where they could have bought a Mac.”
Lastly, I asked whether the shoppers were geniunely free to choose any machine--or whether Microsoft was determined to have them choose models from particular PC makers. He insists that wasn't the case. "If we steered the consumer towards a particular manufacturer, it would cut against the idea of people going on an authentic journey," says Webster. While hurt feelings may emerge in future, at this point he says the OEMs are all thrilled at just having Microsoft do something to spur demand--a nice change from the Vista debacle, no doubt.
There will be three more phases of the campaign after the Laptop Hunters spots. While Microsoft give details, there will surely be ones that highlight Windows 7, and some that focus on how PCs work with other Microsoft products such as cell-phones, game consoles and TVs.
And Webster says the company will move faster and be more ready to change course than it has been in the past. "One of the lessons we learned is that going dark [and having extended periods with no ads] is tricky. This is a muscle you have to use to develop." In many ways, the change is akin to Microsoft's effort to focus less on introducing massive OS releases every few years, and more on Web-style development processes in which its code is continually updated. "You can't wait months to see if something is working." Instead, he says the company is using technology that checks the blogosphere to pick up "tone sentiment." So far, so good, he insists. He says tone sentiment has risen from 50% positive to 70% positive since the campaign began.