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What Microsoft’s $900 Million Mistake Can Teach You About Marketing Messaging

The Microsoft Surface product line hit $1 billion in sales earlier this year.

With the latest version 3 selling at a much faster clip than it’s predecessors.

When product sales are in the billions, then you can probably declare it a victory.

But it wasn’t always that way…

In fact, the Surface was almost dead-on-arrival thanks to a misguided OS and complete lack of direction.

Here’s why, and how you can avoid the same mistakes Microsoft made.

How Windows RT Failed

The first generation of Surface tablets ran on Windows RT, which was uniformly lambasted by critics for a variety of reasons including:

  1. High cost
  2. Low performing software
  3. Product line cannibalization
  4. Little-to-no market differentiation
  5. Being “too closed”
  6. Reluctant OEM partnerships

But the underlying reason?

No one knew what the hell it was. Or who it was for.

Obviously, this mis-alignment would also make it a little difficult to align product specs and technology.

Explains Neil McAllister:

For all its faults, Windows RT might still have stood a chance if Redmond had managed to communicate who its audience was meant to be. But it hasn’t. Three months after the Surface RT launch, it’s still hard to say who the target market for an RT device is.

Even Window’s own Julie Larson-Green admitted that they didn’t do enough to explain the differences between RT and Windows 8.

“Differences”, would have been a good start. But “differences”, wouldn’t have been enough.

Here’s why.

Beware of “Talking Past Your Customers”

When launching a new product or marketing campaign, companies will list features, compare themselves to competitors, and talk about how socially responsible or sustainable they are.

Problem is, nobody cares about these things.

McKinsey released a study where they surveyed 700 global executives across 6 sectors to examine why they buy.

And their primary finding was that companies are talking past their customers by (a) falling victim the curse of knowledge, and (b) emphasizing things that customers don’t care about.


This same problem applies to consumer-facing companies and products too.

Most consumers could care less which operating system Microsoft (or any other similar company) is running on their tablets. As long as it’s good.

As long as it’s fast and easy to use and enjoyable.

Contrast and compare that with another competitor (*ahem*, rhymes with chapel) that doesn’t sell it’s OS, but instead shows how customers can share the emotion and joy of a new birth with family members by using their product.

Now that’s powerful. And it sells.

And it’s a perfect example of getting your messaging to resonate with your customers.

3 Easy Tips to Galvanize Your Market

The right messaging in today’s online environment is essential because it’s everything from site content and blog posts, to whitepapers, eBooks, advertisements, email campaigns, and yes, even social media posts.

So figuring out your messaging should be Step #1, before proceeding to all those other things.

Here are 3 tips you can use today to improve the way you’re communicating to customers (or dare I say, message + market fit).

Tip #1. Sell the Hole, Not the Drill

Most customers care about the outcome or end result they get from using your product. Not necessarily the product itself (sad emoticon).

In other words, sell the hole, not the drill.


(Most) people don’t buy a drill because of how nice it is. They buy it because they need to make holes in the wall to hang their new 55” TV.

One of my favorite (literal) examples of this is Lowe’s Creative Ideas, which shows customers how to do everything from small DIY projects to major room renovations.

They tackle the problem and solve for end result first, and then introduce their products second as the natural way to move from Point A to Point B.

Tip #2. Kill the Hype

Hype doesn’t work for most businesses. And most consumers are smart enough today to see through it.

So cut the over-selling, and go for clarity in messaging.

(That includes copy and messaging dictated by a room full of MBA’s or HiPPOs.)

Building on the first tip, the easiest way to do this is by focusing on examples of outcomes and end results.

You can get there, by explaining your features as benefits. Then translate intangible benefits into concrete outcomes from a customer’s point of view.


Tip #3. Pick an Enemy

Choosing a specific customer segment and getting their attention in theory sounds easy. But in practice, it’s actually extremely difficult.

One of the best ways to (a) identify who you’re targeting and (b) get those people to buy-in, is by talking about who or what you’re against.

In other words, be polarizing!

Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO came under fire for making insensitive comments about who they want as customers:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Incredibly crass and rude? Yes.

But here’s the thing…

He’s right.


You Can’t Stand Out and Fit In at the Same Time

The middle is dangerous.

Red oceans” are crowded and hot and flat (wait… I think I’m mixing my business school metaphors).

Because everything (and everyone) in the middle is invisible.

If you want customers to notice you and get behind your mission, then you need to be able to stick your neck out a little.

Every company or brand you admire, from Tesla to Apple to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (we miss you Jon!), is crystal clear on (a) exactly who they’re targeting and (b) how to clearly communicate with them.

A large part of that is by altering your messaging to align with your customer’s point of view.

Relying on the same generic, cliched, feature-based approach that everyone else uses is easy.

But it’s also the fastest way to being ignored in your own crowded marketplace.

About the Author: Brad Smith is the founder of Codeless, a B2B content creation company. Frequent contributor to Kissmetrics, Unbounce, WordStream, AdEspresso, Search Engine Journal, Autopilot, and more.

  1. Greg Strandberg Oct 14, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Microsoft is so dumb.

    I don’t want a new version of windows! And then to take the old ones off the market, not put them on new machines…why are you doing this?

    Microsoft is a fine example of slow and sclerotic in the business world. They’re a rhino, the kind with all those little birds on them pecking away. They don’t even notice or care anymore, so big are they.

    Mainly, though, they’re indifferent. They don’t care what you want, as is evidenced by this silly rollout.

    Microsoft, like many businesses, think they need new products when the old ones worked fine.

    How much money do you need? Capitalism run amok – the decisions this company makes don’t help you, they hurt you and make you angry.

    Why do we put up with it?

  2. Greg – you complain about Microsoft being a slow and lumbering beast, and then complain about how they change products that worked fine.

    Part of being innovative is changing what works and innovating upon it. People (like yourself) will resist change because they’re afraid of it. That’s okay! Microsoft making the mistakes that they did lead them to the eventual point of making the Surface 3 which is a fine piece of hardware (albeit expensive for what it is).

  3. Arthur Felter Oct 14, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    “Most consumers could care less which operating system Microsoft is running on their tablets.”

    You mean they *couldn’t* care less. Saying consumers could care less means that they do care, at least to some extent.

  4. The most important point here is having clear understanding of your product target group, which will in fact come before deciding to build the product and communicating the value to that group in a more focused way is also key.

    Every business try to do this but the key is learning fast and correcting your mistakes.

    Though not every business has the grace to recover but understanding your customers need is very important.

  5. I would like to challenge the drill and the whole cliche which I have agreed with until now. Clearly, people are interested in more than the “hole”, the outcome. Otherwise there wouldn’t be several hundred different drills I can choose from ranging from £10 to over £1,000.

    Clearly there is more to it than just the “hole” i.e. the end result – otherwise there wouldn’t be such a great choice.

    It’s over simplified and I don’t think it is right in today’s marketplace. Looks, ergonomics, stability, reliability, wireless etc. are all considered in the buying process – if it was just a hole people were interested in, we would only ever buy the £10 drill.

    • I don’t think the metaphor is wrong; there are still plenty of different drills required for different situations, however, his point is that no one buys a drill with diamond bits and 2000w because they are so shiny in the toolbox but because their apartment is made of steel enforced concrete… They still buying the hole in the wall… For some people building a timber shed its $10 for others that hole costs $1000 …

      To put this back to Technology, no one (should) really care how much RAM their device has, so as long as you can sell it as running your productivity app during the day and being able to browse the web on the couch at night, the marketing job has been done… Yet hardly anyone in technology markets that way…

  6. It was ok, but it told me nothing I didn’t read before. The secret is to know your customer before you spend time and money in launching a new product or service.

    Ray Millgate


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