Almost exactly a year ago (give or take 3 weeks) I wrote a post on Microsofts’s then new XBox accessory, the motion sensing Kinect. Back then I noted how the Kinect had been passionately embraced by hackers and scientists across America and the globe. Engineering grad students were finding uses for the Kinect that Microsoft could not have even begun to dream of. Microsoft’s initial reaction was to lets it’s lawyers off the leash but luckily, someone with a modicum of sense managed to beat that instinct down and lock it in cupboard. However, after that, Microsoft largely turned silent. Videos of new and creative uses for the Kinect kept coming but the big M seemed to stick to the plan that the Kinect should be nothing but a cool addition to a gaming console. Truly a horrific waste in terms of marketing and a sad testament to Microsofts ability to grasp the reins of a potentially paradigm shifting opportunity. I was genuinely sad.
Until this video was passed around my office on Monday morning.
That video is goddamn magic.
For me it is more than just the hauntingly beautiful interpretation of the Pixies “Where is my mind?” that accompanies the video* of people using the Kinect in ways that most hardcore gamers would find baffling, if not downright infuriating.
The video is accompanies Microsoft’s recent launch of The Kinect Effect website and the release of SDK Beta, a software package that will make it easier for people to write programs for their Kinect. The company has finally decided to throw its full weight behind the modding community, a move we usually only get from Google. What is more, Microsoft has decided that the Kinect has the heft and power to stand on it’s own. No longer is it merely an fancy gadget that will allow your kids to interact with Elmo or for you to impress your drunk friends with your Dance Central moves. It is a product, no, it is brand all on its own and the video is testament to this.
Only once do you hear someone in the video mention the word XBox, but the fabled entertainment console is nowhere to be seen in the video. At the end of the video, the word “Kinect” stands entirely on it’s own. It is no longer the XBox Kinect, it has grown beyond it.
I don’t think that I would be out of line by saying that even the great, late Steve Jobs could not help but be impressed by this.
- Philip Beickler
* The video was made by twofifteenmccann, a division of McCann Erikson, the global ad agency that won the exclusive contract to all Microsoft advertising. The company is responsible for the hugely impressive Halo and Gears of War ad campaigns that I have mentioned in this space previously. They really have done some amazing work for Microsoft and for the XBox division in particular. I will definitely write about those campaigns in the future.
-The Brats Rebuttal by Philip Beickler
Messieur Malki’s reponse to my earlier post was very good. He presented a reasonable argument, brought up some very valid points and I by and large agree with him. The sound you heard right there was our colleague Caroline Reilly cashing in her savings and putting it all on double 0 at the roulette table. This has never happened before. I will give you all a moment to adjust to this new world.
Go ahead I can wait.
All set? Ok. Here we go.
I admit, I may have jumped the gun a bit by crowning the “open-branding” format the new king. If the tight control approach works for Apple, then vaya con dios. However, does this mean we shouldn’t ask these questions? That there is nothing to learn or that the entire discussion is moot? Shame on you Ben for such baleful incuriosity. Shame!
On the other hand, while I agree with Ben that companies should focus on doing what they do best, I still believe they need to take a good long look at this new brand creature Microsoft has lucked upon. Here’s why:
History is littered with countries and companies that focused on what they did well to the exclusion of adapting to emerging changes in their market. The Dutch were masters of wind energy and completely missed the boat on coal power (no pun intended). German car companies doubled down on diesels, while hybrid cars started to take off.
Apple, of all the companies in the world knows how quickly fortunes can turn. The company spent most of the 90’s in the wilderness, churning out one product failure after another. Remember the Newton?? Their once rabid fan base began to slowly disintegrate in the face of the Windows onslaught. It took the glorious return of Apple deity Steve Jobs to lift the company (and it’s stock price) back into the lime light. Should the worst case scenarios I outlined in my last post come to pass, Mr. Jobs will not be there to save his company a second time. Beyond which, the best technical product does not always capture the market. Look at the Betamax. Apple is a brand company now and periodically it needs to take a hard look at its strategy to see what works, where they are weak and what the competition is doing.
Ben himself provided me with a stellar example of the power of open format branding. The link he posted in the comments section of his response describes how a few hackers from University of Southern California turned Google’s April Fools joke (a motion control version of Gmail) into a reality. In case you hadn’t noticed, it is April 4th. It took em 3 days to make this program! With just a little bit of stewardship from Redmond, the Kinect could mutate from a entertainment accessory to the new way we interact with our computers. Screw touch screens, I want to live in Minority Report! The best part is, Microsoft won’t have spent a dime to make it happen. Their tech savvy, rabid Kinect fan base will have put in all the work and Microsoft can choose how best to exploit this resource.
In the effort to prevent this discussion from degenerating into a childish Apple vs. Microsoft discussion, I have to point out Microsoft didn’t invent the “open format” brand strategy that the Kinect commands. It happened by virtue of a bunch of MIT students using the Kinect to make robots dance and a marketing director who was clever enough to nail the Microsoft litigation teams into their offices. It can claim no credit for this new brand strategy. But it stands to benefit wildly from it.
- Philip Beickler
My dear friend Ben.
If you ever again use the phrase “Just sayin”, either on this site or in my presence, I will buy a Boston Red Sox novelty baseball bat and go full Robert De Niro from The Untouchables on you. I am serious. Don’t talk like a FOX & Friends anchor.
Your buddy Phil
-The Brats presented by Philip Beickler
Controlling and capitalizing on a company’s brand and brand equity is highly lucrative but can at times be like herding cats. But once you hit the Golden Zone, the revenues just start rolling in as your customer demographic transforms into a rabid fan base. This list shows the Top 10 brands with the most loyal customers was provided by my friend, colleague and sometime adversary Ben Malki. He felt that there was a story in the fact that Avis had somehow managed to sneak it’s way into the number 10 spot. What caught my eye was that Apple Inc. had two brands in the top 5. It wasn’t so much a surprise, but it got me thinking.
Apple has Kim Jong Il levels of control over its brands. Mac-heads live the Apple Life style. They live almost their entire digital life (cellphone, music, television, internet, computing) through the Apple portal, willingly surrendering choice and diversity for the Apple experience. You know it, I know it, Apples knows it and they defend their fiefdom viciously and to almost absurd levels. However while I was pondering this I was starting at a website called kinecthacks.net. In particular, this page.
We have talked about the Kinect before, and the huge potential represented by the scientific/hacking/modding community grabbing a hold of the product with both hands. We could not have predicted something like this. Scrolling through Kinect Hacks revels dizzying amounts of uses for a $150 dollar device. Entire communities have sprung up dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what the device can do, abetted by Microsoft. The only hacking/modding communities I know for anything Apple related involved getting the iPhone to work on better network.
The basic argument is one that has been ghosting around the digital world for years. What is better, open or closed formats? Would the same thing be applicable to brands? Companies want their customers to live and breath their brand. Problem is, customers often want to influence the brand right back. This goes well beyond just product feedback or choosing which will be the next Mtn Dew flavor.
Apple, for all it’s control, does not really allow its customers to participate in growing and developing the brand. It is a top down system, Apple mandates, customers follow. The system works while Apple produces cutting edge products, but it can turn sour in a heartbeat. A few product missteps, a killer app that Apple refuses to release over its app store, a few company policies that customers find unfair or excessively restrictive and all these Mac-heads marching in lock step suddenly become an unruly mob.
The flip side is the Kinect open brand format. Customers take ownership of the product and alter it according to their vision but the brand itself is what benefits. Almost every post about a new app on Kinect Hacks is sure to thank Microsoft for inventing the product, and by extension, for keeping their ninja law teams in check. Microsoft can own this movement without needing to control it. Conventions, contests, sponsoring college labs to find new uses for their gadget, the company can foster and grow their brand by following a largely hands-off policy.
Obviously this entire argument is based around two computer companies and their respective products. If the same would hold true for a CPG company or a car company is something worth investigating. On the whole, I have to say that I prefer the open brand format. Relinquishing control enables greater consumer buy in. Yeah, the community is liable to produce a lot of crap but some ideas will be lightning caught in a bottle. It will also inoculate the brand against many of the missteps that have caused brands to slip in popularity. It is messy and the thought of a company giving control of their brand to the unwashed masses is liable to give CMO’s worldwide ulcers. In the end though, 10 million sold units are hard to argue with.
There has been a report circulating the internet, that Microsoft has squirreled away a sanity stripping $500 million for marketing its newest Xbox 360 accessory: the Kinect. At first glance this doesn’t seem all that unlikely: Kinect ads seem to have inundated the airwaves, the promised appearance on the Oprah show has already taken place and Microsoft has already sold over 1 million of their fancy little motion capture devices. Despite all this, if it seems mind boggling to you how Microsoft might be able to blow half a billion dollars in the course of a month and a half, then you are not the only one. True, Microsoft has a lot of new hardware to push. A completely redesigned Xbox 360, along with the Kinect, means the company hopes to cajole Xbox owners to take this opportunity to replace their old systems. 2010 has also been a year of strong apps, both in terms of box titles and over their Xbox Live Arcade virtual store. (A more complete and professional verdict on the Games Industry in 2010 in general and Microsoft in particular can be found here.) So Microsoft Xbox division have had a good year and they are trying boost their 4th quarter numbers, but does that justify spending the GDP of Samoa to achieve this goal?
The answer, can be gleamed from the adverts themselves: