NEW YORK After years of being defined by Apple, Microsoft is fighting back and somewhat surprisingly, landing some punches. The company’s latest round of ads featuring real consumers named Lauren and Giampalo trying to buy laptops for less than $1,000 and $1,500, respectively, seems to have struck a chord. (A new ad featuring a mother and son, also from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, is set to break at the end of this week.) At the very least, the Lauren ad has raised the ire of the Apple faithful, who gleefully pointed out that the woman in the ad, Lauren De Long, was in fact a professional actress. Nevertheless, David Webster, general manager of brand marketing at Microsoft, said his company’s whole campaign, which started in September with those baffling Jerry Seinfeld-Bill Gates ads, has resulted in a 10 percent lift in preference for the brand over Apple. Webster, who formerly worked for New York agency Siegel + Gale, spoke with Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman. Below are some excerpts.
Brandweek: The ads seem to be catching on. People are talking about them. Are you happy with the results?
Webster: Yeah, we’re thrilled. With this layer, in particular, it seems we’ve hit a nerve. It resonates with people. When we set out to do this, one of the things we wanted to maintain, along with the “Rookie” spots that featured the little kids and the “I’m a PC” ads that hit in the fall, is we wanted to use real people and have it be as real as possible. And one of our premises is we know our brand has billions of users around the world, so if we can’t find actual customers to do your storytelling around there’s something wrong. The other premise was we wanted to really celebrate that diversity. If you have a billion customers, they’re all different and one of the aha moments we had in the process was there’s no such thing as a perfect PC. There’s just a perfect PC for you. The odds are a lot greater that you’re going to find the perfect PC for you within our universe compared to the other guy’s.
Anytime you go out and say anything mildly critical of Apple you get blasted by Apple fans and so the recent ads have been torn apart. First of all, Lauren is an actress?
It’s one of those things that’s lesson learned. If you’re going to recruit in Los Angeles, you’re going to get some actors who aren’t working. The criteria for being in [the ad ] was you had to be in the market for a computer over the next six months and beyond that we didn’t really quote an occupation.
The other thing branding people are pointing out is that if you’re going to say your pitch is that you’re cheaper than the competition, it’s going to hurt you when the economy recovers. What’s your thinking on that?
The important thing, which will become clear as you see more of the spots, is…[the fact that] we offer a much better value, not that we’re cheaper. I mean Giampalo’s PC is $1,500. This next family is near $1,500. We had people who bought PCs at $2,000 price points and so our message really is no matter what you’ve spent, it’s really a matter of what you get for that money, for the stuff you care about, having to give up features or qualities — the parts of the computer experience that you’re looking for against a price point that Apple has. From our perspective the point that comes across is getting more for your money versus just being cheaper.
From a branding perspective, it’s unusual that someone like Microsoft, which has like 90 percent of the market, would go after a much smaller competitor. Why acknowledge their existence?
Well, in this case, amongst the customers we’re targeting, they’re all aware of Apple. It’s one of those cases where, you’re right, normally the No. 1 brand doesn’t have to take the time to acknowledge the existence of the No. 2 brand, but in this case, we felt like the consideration that customers are going through in the evaluation process, reminding them or demonstrating in a more visceral fashion, the advantages that our side has would be a good idea. The customers that we’re targeting are customers that know about Apple, are in a retail environment where they are seeing Apple. From our standpoint, the risk of inadvertently increasing exposure for Apple was very low because they’re already aware of Apple because Apple spent $400 million on their campaign over the last two-and-a-half years going after us.
The initial reaction to the Seinfeld-Gates ads were people were confused. They didn’t know what was going on. Was that the intention?
The Seinfeld ads were an icebreaker. The really funny thing is in hindsight, given the amount of scrutiny our ads get, was when we were planning these campaigns last summer and we had the playbook that ran all the way through this summer, the thing that was on our minds was “Well what if we launched an ad campaign and no one paid attention?” I know that sounds insane right now given that the level of coverage we get is so intense, but we hadn’t really done an out-of-release cycle campaign for Windows in a long, long time. Normally we’d launch a product, do some ads and then we’d go away and part of our commitment here was to really begin a sustained conversation with consumers about the Windows brand. So rather than just jump in to that conversation and start talking about features and benefits, we needed to really reacquaint ourselves with consumers and tap them on the shoulder and get them to lean in a little bit. And that’s what we designed that first layer of the campaign to do. We simply increased the focus that the second wave of the campaign would get. Against that objective we performed very well. The unearned media we got for that campaign dwarfed the paid media we got by a factor of three to four X and all of those folks were tuned into the “I’m a PC” layer that came right after it.
So everything’s going according to plan?
Yeah. The outcome that we care about most is whether it’s moving the product and we’ve seen a 10 percent lift since we’ve been running this campaign in purchase intent. Obviously that was our goal.
There’s a moment in the Lauren ad when she says, “I’m not cool enough to be an Apple person.” I think that struck a chord with a lot of people. Was that based on market research?
Lauren says whatever Lauren says because she’s a real person, but she ended up giving voice to something we have seen, which is that the changing definition of what’s cool at any given moment is really interesting to look at, but there’s a point we’re at now where what people think is really cool now is getting a great deal, like finding that awesome bargain whether it’s a sample sale or getting that discounted vacation or being able to drop cable and watch TV on Hulu. People are I think redefining cool in a macroeconomic climate like this and getting what you want at a great price is a new kind of cool. And you see that not only in the coverage this campaign is getting. I think also that Apple’s campaign tried to stereotype a PC user pretty aggressively into, you know, John Hodgeman and he’s a likable, funny guy. Most people like him better than the Justin Long guy. Most people who Apple’s targeting that ad to are PC users, by definition. So the question is when you look at that screen is do they see themselves as that guy or as the more diverse, real kind of people that end up in our ads saying that they’re PCs. And we’re pretty confident that people are going to end up saying I’m a lot more like the PC in the Microsoft ads than in the Mac ads.