How should Microsoft fight Vista criticism? "We're sorry" is a good start

On this week’s EIC-squared podcastLarry Dignan asked me what I would do to fix Vista’s tarnished brand if I were in charge of Microsoft’s marketing for a day. OK, I’ll take the job, but on two conditions: First, I want face time with Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky. Second, I want some of those dollars Steve was going to fork over to buy Yahoo, because cleaning up the Vista mess is gonna cost some bucks. Oh, and someone's going to have to say, "We're sorry."

I filled in for Dan Farber on this week’s EIC-squared podcast. (It’s well under 10 minutes, and we cover a lot of ground. Go listen.) In the course of our talk, ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan asked me what I would do to fix Vista’s tarnished brand if I were in charge of Microsoft’s marketing for a day. OK, I’ll take the job, but on two conditions: First, I want face time with Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky. Second, I want some of those dollars Steve was going to fork over to buy Yahoo, because cleaning up the Vista mess is gonna cost some bucks.

The context of the conversation, of course, is Microsoft’s campaign to “fight back” against Vista’s poor reputation and Apple’s relentless Vista-bashing ad series. Mary Jo Foley has more details in her report from Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston. I’m hearing the same messages in my conversations with Microsoft executives and product managers.

In classic Microsoft style, they can be distilled into three key points:

  • Hardware and software partners weren’t ready for the launch. As Mary Jo reports, Windows honcho Brad Brooks “acknowledged that partners stopped believing that Microsoft would ever manage to ship Vista and thus didn’t prepare adequately for the launch of the operating system.”
  • Many of the architectural changes, especially those involving security and device drivers, caused existing hardware and software to work poorly or not at all. Most of those issues have been fixed in the past 18 months, and the exceptions are generally older products whose owners have decided not to invest in Vista support.
  • Windows Vista as it exists today is not the same product that Microsoft shipped back in November 2006. Service Pack 1 is the biggest fix, of course, but Microsoft has been delivering bug fixes and compatibility updates continually via Windows Updates

There’s a great deal of truth in that summary, but it’s not the whole truth. It misses the mark dramatically by not acknowledging the negativity in the market and in the press and confronting it head on. More importantly, it doesn’t include any serious ‘fessing up to the series of blunders that Microsoft has committed over the course of Vista’s development and release. This week one of Microsoft’s top executives admitted that the changes in Vista “broke a lot of things” and “caused … a lot of pain.” Usually, that sort of confession is followed by “I’m sorry” and “Here’s what we’re going to do to make up for that pain.”

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s messaging machine has a tendency to go into spin cycle automatically. That might work for your average product launch, but it won’t cut it for Vista’s tarnished brand. If Microsoft doesn’t want to hear that from me, maybe they’ll listen to Frank Shaw, who leads the worldwide PR team in charge of Windows at Microsoft’s PR agency, Waggener Edstrom. In his blog this week, Frank offered some excellent advice. It was on a completely different subject, but it could just as easily have been addressed to Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky. Here, judge for yourself:

[Y]ou don’t get a multi-day news cycle like they’ve just gone through without at least considering the idea that just maybe you are not being successful in getting your POV into the market (or in web 2.0 speak, that you are not “participating in the conversation.”)

I think it’s fair to say that 18 months of merciless, nonstop Vista-bashing qualifies as a “multi-day news cycle” and that Microsoft pretty much avoided “participating in the conversation” until just a couple of months ago, after the release of Vista Service Pack 1. (For the first six months after Vista’s retail launch, remember, they wouldn’t even acknowledge that Vista was going to have a Service Pack 1, much less discuss its details.)

Frank continues:

[O]ver the last several years [they] have not adjusted their self image with the image the rest of the world has of them, and that self perception gap is one of the biggest causes for communication failure. You can see this play out time and time again. Established sports stars who still think of themselves as fighting for respect are suddenly seen as arrogant, companies who keep acting like they are a start up when they have achieved big market success are seen as bullies, and a fun loving web site cataloguing cool things comes across as a bunch of priggish censors.

One of the key roles PR can play is making sure that companies/individuals understand how the rest of the world sees them, and calibrating the communication accordingly.

Right now, much of the world sees Microsoft as rudderless and unable to deliver a competent product. Apple has reduced Vista to a pitiful caricature in ads that are brilliant and memorable, even if they are grossly exaggerated and occasionally just plain wrong. Microsoft has responded with white papers, keynote addresses, and spin-laden press releases. They brought a knife to a gunfight.

Frank’s conclusion applies almost perfectly to Microsoft:

[T]he story is not over yet, because they’ve violated another rule of crisis communications: own your news, and get it all out early so you can declare an end to the crisis.

Exactly. So maybe, in the spirit of owning the news, Microsoft could admit that they screwed up when they put Intel’s interests over those of their customers in the “Vista Ready” and “Vista Capable” logo snafu. It would be nice to think that some heads rolled for that one, and it’s worth noting that Sinofsky, who’s now in charge of the Windows development effort, was harshly critical of the decision.

While they’re in an apologizing mood, Microsoft could say a hearty “we’re sorry” for the confusion that roiled the Windows ecosystem in early 2007. Yes, some of it was the fault of OEMs and software partners who didn’t pull their weight. But Microsoft has to shoulder at least part of the blame, and a little humility would go a long way.

Of course, talk is cheap, which is why I said right up front that I need some Microsoft bucks to really sell this message. Here’s how I propose spending them:

  • Free support for Vista issues. Yes, there are people struggling with computers that run Vista poorly or have reliability and compatibility problems. In most cases, there’s a fix for the problem. So why not offer a toll-free number where Vista users can get help and support, even if they purchased Windows Vista with a new PC from an OEM? This doesn’t have to be a permanent fixture, but a free Vista support hotline that runs through the holiday season would go a long way toward reassuring customers. Microsoft has taken a baby step in this direction with its Small Business Assurance program. Try doing the same for consumers, OK?
  • Free upgrades for early adopters. Any consumer who can show a receipt for a copy of Windows Vista purchased in the first few months after retail launch – let’s say before September 30, 2007 – should get a free upgrade to the next highest Windows version. Your copy of Vista Basic earns a license for Home Premium; Home Premium and Business get bumped up to Ultimate; and Ultimate customers get a second license for personal use (not for resale).

There’s plenty of good stuff in Windows Vista, and it deserves to get some exposure in clever, hard-hitting ads to counterbalance the Apple FUD. But don’t ignore the people who suffered during Vista's early days.