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Microsoft: a case study in strategy and messaging

Posted by Ben Smith on 29th March 2023

When you think of the most innovative tech companies who do you think of? Apple? Google? Tesla?

What about Microsoft? It’s a very interesting example. It’s definitely massive. We all use at least one of their products most days. But innovative? Not really. Not safe, venerable, boring Microsoft.

Oh, but hang on a minute, what’s this? Microsoft has stolen a march on its rivals on generative AI – the hottest tech trend of the moment? ChatGPT is being rolled out in its products already? When did that happen?

And when you dig deeper this isn’t some flash in the pan.

A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR)article argued that far from being “a 20th-century phenomenon, fat and happy from its Windows monopoly”, Microsoft is on a short list of the 26 most agile and innovative companies in the world. Curiously, a company like Google didn’t make the cut.

As that article makes clear, there has been a lot of work internally at Microsoft to shift the culture and to change the mindset of what it means to work for the company. However, at the heart of this story is something perhaps a little unexpected but something I have written about previously – the power of PR messaging.

New story, new you

The HBR article goes back to the appointment of Satya Nadella as CEO in 2014 and one of the biggest challenges that greeted the new leader:

“Having long accomplished its goal of ‘a PC on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software,’ the company needed a new goal”.

In other words, Microsoft desperately needed to tell a different story about itself.

Now I imagine it would have been easy – and sorely tempting – for a new executive team to look at Microsoft’s business and basically decide to ‘stick to the plan’. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?

But they didn’t. Instead, they took the decision to create a new story for the brand. This ultimately led them to a new narrative focused on how Microsoft is “empowering every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more”.

As the HBR profile makes clear, that simple statement, that call to “achieve more”, has impacted every strategic decision the company has subsequently made. A direct line can be traced from the decision to create a new story and the current headlines hailing Microsoft’s innovation chops.

You can’t fix what you don’t understand

What this case study highlights is the need for what Mark Ritson calls ‘brand diagnosis’. For Ritson this is the essential requirement for any brand owner to do their homework when it comes to knowing and understanding your target audience:

“If you understand that a brand exists in the head and the heart of the target consumer, then without research you have nothing to manage.”

And he’s absolutely right of course. If we don’t understand what our target audience currently thinks about our brand, and if that perception is at odds with what we assume, then how can we possibly have any idea or strategy for shifting that perception to where we want it to be?

Keep it simple, stupid

When it comes to seeking out and analysing that audience insight however, I think there is a golden rule – simple really is better.

Again, the Microsoft example is incredibly instructive. What was the challenge they faced? Essentially: ‘people think we’re old and corporate, and they take our products for granted’.

When you boil it down in those terms, it’s arrestingly simple. It’s absolutely not complex. It’s not deep and meaningful.

And yet, that basic insight led them to focus on their ‘achieve more’ mantra. And you can see immediately how that lovely, simple statement can have huge power. It easily works as a tagline, as a jumping off point for a comms campaign, as a strategic reference point for the whole company.

It’s another great example of the true power of messaging. It’s also a great reminder that sometimes this does take bravery – bravery to confront what might be the hard truths of what people actually think about your brand. And the bravery to do something about it

If you’re feeling brave, we’d love to talk to you about your PR messaging challenges.

Ben Smith

Ben’s deep knowledge of sectors as diverse as electronics and IT, cleantech and medtech means he has a wide range of experience to draw on for his clients – ensuring that no two campaigns are the same. Ben’s expertise lies in helping his clients to raise their profiles beyond trade media and he has a proven track record in running campaigns that deliver coverage in national, business and consumer publications.