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Microsoft V Apple - Brand Cage Fights

The launch of Windows 7 has predictably been a very hot topic of conversation online and offline. Lots of PC vs Mac debates and pokes and prods at the flop that was Vista. Apple has responded with their high ground approach through the Mac vs PC ads.

It got me thinking, is it good to go so blatantly head to head? And how do you win?

There are pro's and con's to starting a one on one war with a competitor brand. The risks are high and the effects potentially game changing in the long term.

First off, let's look at the Apple vs Microsoft contest.

Apple vs Microsoft

Of course, this is the obvious and most topical fight. Apple's rise to technology fame has mainly been thanks to innovative design and inspirational leadership. They've also benefited by building strong brand equity via each product launch. Each Nano, iPhone, iPod, iMac, Macbook is instantly synonymous with the Apple brand. The recent rise of their retail experiences have allowed a broader mainstream audience access to what had previously been reserved exclusively for cool, early-adopter design types.

While Apple was and still is a large corporate entity, the perception of their corporate culture allowed them to project the image of cool, youthful, entrepreneurs epitomised their mission to 'think different.' This is in stark comparison to Microsoft.

Microsoft's branded house isn't synonymous with such imagery. Not that this should be limiting of course. Successful, safe, reliable and universal are all qualities that have allowed Microsoft to become market leader in most of the markets they operate in (including against Apple). However, when you look at Windows, MSN, Zune, Xbox, MSN, Live and Office you don't get the same unified feel. The sub-brands have been managed accordingly in response to various market forces and customer / industry perceptions. But, as a result competitors have managed to separate and pick off sub-brands in some cases isolating some of Microsoft's weaknesses.

Vista was the clear example of this. However, the Apple onslaught didn't go head to head with operating systems. They went head to head with customer choice. They used Microsoft as the euphemism for all other computers in the PC vs Mac wars and started to eat into some of Microsoft's market share but more importantly consumer's mind share by questioning their credibility. The danger of course is in then guaranteeing that Apple will beat Microsoft at every touchpoint. The latest Windows 7 launch is unlikely to be welcomed by Apple with some positive feedback already coming from consumers, industry and media.

The tide may start to turn with Windows 7. Xbox dominance over Sony, as well as positivity around Bing has also helped. Perhaps now is the time to reunite the Microsoft house and solidify the cohesions between the brands. With Apple's increasing competition and focus on the mobile phone market, we could see them take their eye off the ball. Microsoft is of course still the market leader in the Windows v Leopard stakes, but this change may also see some return of share in the consumer sentiment stakes. Not a direct measure of sales, but certainly a long-term measure of health.

The Pro's and Con's of the cage match

By picking a fight with another brand you effectively isolate both yourself and them in a one-on-one competition (hence the cage match metaphor).

This can have varying effects not just on you or them, but on customers and the market in general.

Pro's:

Position - If you're number 3 or 4 in the market you perceptually elevate your brand to number 2 and suggest that the rest of the competition is obsolete.

Control - By starting the war, you have control over where it's fought. The opportunity to highlight a claim, a weakness (or a comparative strength) can quickly make you look like number 1.

Gains - In the short-term, the market share grab can be quick and substantial.

Con's:

Position - If you lose, you really lose. You're out of the game. Not relegated to 3, 4 or 5 where you can still be competitive.

Perception - This is only ever going to be short-term. If you've convinced a customer to switch, you have to deliver on a heightened expectation, again and again with every interaction.

Loyalty - You're trying to convince consumers that they've made the wrong choice. In essence, you're saying they're stupid. A very risky and potentially alienating proposition if they don't agree with you.

Tall Poppy - Tone is key. There are many people out there who prefer the underdog, not the arrogant bragger claiming they're the best.

Gains - In the long-term, if you didn't deliver, the road back to parity will be long and difficult. Repairing lost customer relationships takes significant time and monetary investment.

If your strategy is to go head to head, you better be smart. In conclusion, I think the Apple strategy is very smart. They don't pitch product v product, feature v feature, they pitch benefits. A stable, more emotionally appealing platform that has longer term opportunities. If you go head to head on price, features or functionality, the war will be short-term. If you lose, it could take years to get back to past status. Long-term success is much more likely to come from a focus on communicating your brand's own strengths and benefits than your competitor's weaknesses.