Friday, 11 December 2009

Why Microsoft's marketing is cynical, cheap - and brilliant

Microsoft is, increasingly, an awful lot like Apple when it comes to marketing.

A couple of years ago Redmond seemed comfortable to sit in its nerdy niche but, ever since the arrival of advertising guru Steve Ballmer as CEO, the firm has paid plenty of attention – and spent plenty of money – on revamping its image.

It’s arguable that only the crucial Windows group has more of a marketing focus than the Xbox division but, whereas adverts for the new OS have concentrated on being open and honest, Microsoft’s gaming efforts seem to focus on pulling the wool over customer’s eyes – especially when it comes to so-called “exclusive” titles.

Take Left 4 Dead 2, for instance. One of this Winter’s blockbuster releases, it’s developed by PC gaming icons Valve – as was the first after the studio was bought mid-way through the game’s creation – and is a co-operative FPS that’s best played on the PC.

Except the average gamer might not know that: every TV advert shows the game’s frenetic action before cutting to an Xbox 360 ident that, to the average Modern Warfare 2 and FIFA-playing console fan, makes the game appear as an exclusive.

Of course, Microsoft avoids legal issues by never using the “E” word, but it’s not needed – the Xbox 360 branding at the end of the advert will, I’m sure, make enough gamers assume that the game is only available on Microsoft’s platform.

It’s not only Left 4 Dead 2 that has fallen prey to Microsoft’s sneaky tactics. Most of the Rock Band series has been adorned with the branding despite it being available for PlayStation 3 simultaneously, and a new advert shows all manner of music games – including Guitar Hero 5 and DJ Hero – being played on a 360, with voice of “real” music Jo Whiley providing a suitable voiceover. Zane Lowe has done the same sort of thing in the past, too.

This strategy – which presents many of the world’s most alluring games as exclusive titles, even if they’re not – is arrogant, smug and misleading. Very few tech companies, with the exception of the cult-like Apple, have been able to get away with something along these lines.

Perhaps I’m feeling wounded as an unashamed Sony fan: after all, it only really advertises real exclusives rather than pretending that multi-format releases are only available on one platform.

Unfortunately for Sony, it seems to be working. Reports from the launch of Modern Warfare 2 suggested that Xbox 360 copies were flying off the shelves in comparison to the PlayStation 3 version, even if the gap between the two consoles is closing: Activision reported that 360 sales outnumbered PS3 sales two to one, even though PS3 sales have surged over the past few months.

And, perhaps, Microsoft should be applauded for its aggressive advertising. Sony has its own endorsements – many of which, including the Champions League and WRC – it’s stood by for years, but it just doesn’t promote its console as aggressively as Microsoft does in the mainstream, with adverts touting many of the same services, such as movie streaming and media capabilities, that the PS3 offers for free.

With only a handful of exclusive games between platforms and most big titles appearing on both machines, I’d wager that Microsoft’s early lead of the PS3 was the result of an earlier launch and plenty of adverts rather than it being borne out of a genuinely superior machine.

After all, thanks to Microsoft’s sneaky marketing, thousands of people are fooled in thinking that certain games are only available on a console that’s noisy, ugly and far more expensive, when it comes to total cost of ownership, than its main competitor.

There's no doubt that Microsoft's aggressive and effective marketing strategy should be applauded. It’s just a shame that the battle between the world’s two best consoles might be won by whoever is willing to stump up the biggest advertising budget.

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