How to Kneecap Microsoft

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By Goofyhoofy
May 19, 2008

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Saying your competitor sucks is not the (best? classy? right?) way to attract people to your product. Tell them why you are superior.

Actually, negative advertising, although only occasionally done, is a quite effective way - sometimes the only way - to tell people about your product. If your competitor is well entrenched and highly successful, most of your advertising message is going to bounce right off because there's no opening for your "I'm superior" claim to take root.

Look at Vonage, for example. You cannot convince most people that there's a better "telephone" out there; they've had one their whole lives, it works (even when the electricity goes out), it's seemingly reasonably priced, it's simple to operate: you pick it up and talk. Notice that Vonage doesn't say "It's easier to use" or "It works better", because you can't make a dent in those dimensions. Instead, they have the phone guy talk about pricing: "It's simple, really, you start with a variety of pricing options..." thus demonstrating that it's not, and the phone company makes things complicated, at least on the billing. [Sow doubt.] Vonage, on the other hand, has everything included: long distance, call waiting, caller ID, conference calling, etc. See? It's easy! Call up and switch!

Negative advertising is used in politics most often because those guys have a very narrow window in which to change minds. John Kerry, to use but one example, was a guy who took multiple voluntary tours in Vietnam, came home with 3 purple hearts, a silver star and a bronze star, and was repositioned into the being of a slacker who somehow got all those medal by some fishy means. See the 2004 election for the results.

Microsoft is a tall and mighty mountain, and you don't go through it by saying "We're better." At the moment Apple is transcendent in other areas: corporate brass is saying "Support my iPhone". The mass market is buying iPods. And now is the time when the Apple OS might get some traction from people who have used "the other guy" for the last umpteen years, but not without a push. The "push" is "you can't buy a new computer without this crappy OS being shoved down your throat. How about Apple?"

In order to do that, you have to make the point that Vista sucks. The great unwashed are not going to get that information from CNet, which they don't read, or from the computer salesman who is happy to close a deal on a new PC, so you have to reach the consumer at home, where and when you can. And you cannot do that without taking a slap at Vista.

You are not going to convince IT managers, of course, who know whether or not it's working, but you can reach parents of kids going to college who need a new laptop (and who will fund the purchase) and you can convince kids that "Hey, it's COOL to have the Mac", and you can assuage Mom & Dad's fears by saying "Look, it's really popular, and the other guy's system is crappy." So that's what you do. At the same time, you make it harder for IT managers to say "No" when the 3rd Vice President comes in and says "I need a new computer. I travel a lot. How about one of those MacBook Air things?" They have to dance a lot harder to say no, even though their life would be easier with only one system to shepherd.

No, when you are facing a monolith, sometimes the only way to make a dent is to go negative. If you have a great new idea for a soft drink, believe me "Mine tastes better than Coke" is not gonna work. You might think about "Coke rots your teeth, and mine is all natural, and doesn't" hopefully presented a more humorous, more oblique manner.

It's common for people to think that "the superior product" wins, but that can't be true, or Microsoft wouldn't have the market share that it does today, would it? Or, as marketing gurus Ries & Trout said in "Marketing is Warfare":

Another argument is that a superior product will overcome other weaknesses. Again, Ries and Trout disagree. Once consumers already have in their minds that a product is number one, it is extremely difficult for another product, even if superior, to take over that number one place in the consumer's mind.

You're not going to beat Microsoft by saying "We're better." Mac has been better for 25 years and that hasn't worked. What will work is a coordinated effort, aided by brand halo from other products, and a perception that Godzilla is aging, tired, and losing his grip. Then you can rally your soldiers to go in and kneecap him.