What's In It for Me, Bill? Two Lessons From Microsoft

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Bill Gates recently demonstrated he doesn't know one of the two most powerful direct-selling words in the English language. Oh, he got one of them a long time ago and used it to throttle the competition -- a little too aggressively, according to some.

The first one is "free," as in free browser. Some would say Bill used free kind of like a flame thrower.

And now after U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's ruling that Microsoft engaged in anti-competitive practices, Gates has smartly taken his case to American consumers by launching a television campaign.

"Twenty-five years ago, my friends and I started with nothing but an idea -- that we could harness the power of the PC to improve people's lives," Gates says in the ad. "Since then, it's become a tool that has transformed our economy and had a profound effect on how we live and how our children learn.

"Now our goal at Microsoft is to create the next generation of software, to keep innovating and improving what we can do for you." Gates finishes by saying, "The best is yet to come."

How can such a successful guy blow one of the most fundamental rules of marketing? "Twenty five years ago, my friends and I?"

Direct marketers have known for years that besides "free," one of the other most powerful selling words in the English language is "you."

The last thing people want to hear about is the marketer. They want to know what's in it for them. Though Gates' ad uses "you" near the end, by then, it is too late.

We've tuned out with "my friends and I" and finished the sentence ourselves with "started getting obscenely wealthy" or "began trampling the competition" -- even those of us who are on his side.

Maybe Gates is afraid if he shows too much marketing savvy, the Department of Justice will begin to investigate his appeal to the American public for being too aggressive as well.

It's an understandable fear with so many states' attorneys general getting ready to pile on with lawsuits over Microsoft's supposed damage to consumers.

Which brings us to another lesson in Microsoft's troubles to which marketers should pay close attention.

The company is getting whacked for being too warlike in its marketing practices. A reaction piece last week, for instance, compared Gates to Napoleon, no doubt voicing the opinions of many.

Yet marketers speak in war terms every day.

How many books on guerilla marketing are there? How often do we see articles about taking territory or using the right weapons?

Flip open a popular business publication, and there's an ad from 'eBusiness Applications' provider Calico with the headline "Don't Just Compete. Conquer." The artwork shows a business executive wearing a Viking helmet. Another ad a few pages later shows an armadillo in steel armor and leads with "Today, more than ever, business is a battle." Another ad makes reference to Darwinism -- a favorite topic among Internet marketers who like to think of their businesses as "evolving at warp speed in a market where only the fittest survive."

People forever talk about how Macintosh had a better product and how the consumer suffered with Microsoft's mediocrity as a result of its oppressive tactics. Meanwhile, very few take Macintosh and Netscape to task for their mediocre marketing.

Even today, Macintosh's "Think Different" campaign is little more than a grammatically incorrect exercise in cute.

Is there anyone reading this editorial who doesn't think of crushing the competition or who doesn't try to cut exclusive deals? We'd love to hear from them.

It's a shame that Microsoft's marketing executives are being punished for reaching goals for which we all strive.

The lesson for this week: By all means, use war words to describe your work. Make like you're going into battle every day.

Just, whatever you do, don't articulate those thoughts in e-mail, and for Janet Reno's sake, don't win.

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