This has not been a good month for Microsoft, or so it would seem.
Since International CES, the notoriously tight-lipped company has become a virtual sieve of leaked information and screen shots. Microsoft has historically played things very close to the vest, and you found out about its products the day it launched them, just like God intended. It’s not like it is with Apple, with its carefully curated series of official and unofficial leaks, heading into each product-release cycle.
Which is why the last few weeks have been such a problem. The leaks started with Cortana, the Siri-like virtual assistant that first appeared on the latest Windows phones. For a while, industry observers have suspected a “long game” with Cortana, fully expecting to see it start to appear in Windows 10 releases and in further iterations of the Microsoft browser. And because we are all prone to ridiculous amounts of crystal ball gazing in this industry, Cortana was a fabulous new puzzle to tear apart and analyze.
Crazy talk, and enough to keep everyone busy, until there was a small Microsoft event in Redmond … which promptly triggered leaked photos of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 phone, and soon thereafter screenshots started making the rounds of sites like Mashable and TechRadar. There were also obscure tweets with shots of a possible native audio app apparently taken from a factory in China (right out of the Apple playbook with Chinese characters and all).
Then February hit and the sites were practically exploding with Microsoft leaks, to the point where CEO Satya Nadella was probably checking his phone for bugs. The villains this time were leaks in advance of the launch of Microsoft’s new browser, named “Spartan.” In true fabulous Apple iPhone fashion there were leaked screen shots, and then those shots were debunked and replaced with the “real” screenshots, only to then be warned off those too.
Cortana has popped its head up again as a potential integrated technology, and lordy lordy did you hear that it may be released as an actual app that will run on non-Microsoft devices?!?
Now, on the one hand, this deluge of unofficial information is most un-Microsoft, and I am not assuming that it is orchestrating this a la Apple. However, there is no question that this has taken on a life of its own and is something that it will have to be dealing with from this point until these products actually launch. And this is the unfortunate world it now lives in, which is totally, completely …
What? I know, you just dropped your double latte upon reading that, but from a branding point of view, this is absolutely fabulous news for Microsoft. Remember, this is the company that just a few years ago was considered the one that missed the boat of all boats in the form of the Internet. A colossal money engine with the Office franchise, it was still relegated to the dustbin of history, there to watch as more nimble rivals like Facebook, Apple and Google took over the world.
A few years ago, Microsoft could have released photos of every last piece of technology in their labs and they would have been greeted with a collective yawn. Because, in reality, no one really cared what was coming next from Microsoft. From a branding point of view, there is not a whole lot you can do at that point.
Flash-forward to today, and not only are people interested again, they are actually trying to beat each other to the punch when it comes to the latest reveal. These upcoming products may be as great as advertised or may fall short, but either way they are already succeeding in a way that Microsoft has not in a while.
What is responsible for this sudden resurgence in attention? If there is one thing that Nadella has done since he took over the helm, it has been to simplify and streamline the message coming out of Redmond. At one point, at the end of a buying binge that ended with the lamented purchase of Aquantive, Microsoft looked more like a garage sale than a technology company.
But with the streamlining of the products came a streamlining of the story. One thing that has always been true in branding is that if you say one thing, your customer hears one thing. If you try to say a bunch of things at the same time, your customer hears … nothing. Suddenly people want to hear what Microsoft has to say. In fact, they want to hear it before the company even says it. And that, folks, is that best leak Microsoft has ever heard.
Christopher Caen is a partner and chief brand strategist of Theory Associates, a strategic branding agency that creates demand for some of the world’s leading technology brands. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.