When you want to make smart decisions for your own company, it's often instructive to see what the big boys are doing, both right and wrong.  And when it comes to branding, Microsoft is an excellent example of what not to do.

I'm referring specifically to the company's ill-fated attempts to extend the Windows brand into product categories beyond the PC.  Microsoft keeps trying to do this, and it keeps falling flat, because they've lost track of what's important about brand: the customer experience.

String of Failures

Every time Microsoft has tried to extend the Windows brand name, they've come up with a loser.

For example, when Microsoft launched an new operating system for ultra-small computers in the late 1990s, it named that operating system "Windows CE." Even though the environment was heavily promoted, Windows CE never took off–and Microsoft lost an early advantage what eventually morphed into the tablet market, now dominated by Apple and Google.

Another more recent failure is "Windows Live," the collective name for about a dozen applications, web services, and mobile services launched in 2005.  Microsoft recently announced that it's retiring the "Windows Live" brand and folding most of them into the Windows 8 operating system.

Writing in the New York Times, author Randall Stross credits the failure of the "Windows Live" brand extension to a lack of consumer enthusiasm about the Windows product line in general.  As he put it, "the brand love just wasn't there."

And that's the fundamental mistake that Microsoft keeps making–and that you need to understand.

Windows Is an Albatross

It's been a long time since I've heard anybody, except the very occasional programmer, praise Windows. In fact, it seems like every time a new version of Windows is released, the main selling point seems to be that "this time Microsoft got it right." Which is a message that gets kinda old after you've heard it five or six times.

Let's face it: From the days of the blue screen of death to today's virus infections, Windows has remained workmanlike, at best. Consumers tolerate Windows, but they don't seem to love it.  And that's been true since the 1990s.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm still using my Windows machine for most of my writing, just like I have for decades. I actually think Microsoft's Office products are pretty darn decent, although they do suffer a bit from the occasional feature creep. However, I no longer own a notebook computer (I used to keep two), and I'm seriously considering whether my current Windows desktop will be my last.  And I don't think I'm particularly unusual in feeling this way, based upon the trends in Windows sales.

Time to Scrap Windows?

There comes a time when a company needs to admit that a brand has outlived its usefulness. Windows has, in my opinion, simply acquired so much baggage that Microsoft would be better off scrapping the brand (along with the code) and simply starting over.

Of course, the likelihood of that happening is virtually nil. As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at his keynote at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show: "There's nothing more important at Microsoft than Windows."

But he's wrong; there is something more important.  And that's exactly the lesson that the Windows branding mess offers smaller firms.

True Meaning of Brand

Brand is always a reflection of a product. If the customer's experience with a product line is positive, then the brand is strengthened.

Over time, a string of positive experiences creates a great brand that's resilient, in the sense that consumers will forgive a lemon or two. Apple, for instance, has released a few turkeys (think iPod HiFi) without damaging the brand's overall luster.

Similarly, if the customer's experience with a product line is lousy, then the brand is weakened. However, it takes a long string of great products to get consumers to forget a bad experience. Witness how long it's taken for American car companies to live down the era of "planned obsolescence."

Microsoft's huge mistake has been to consider the Windows brand more important than the customer's experience with the product.  Since that experience is often negative (especially when compared to new environments), it's a fool's errand to try to extend the Windows brand into other product categories.

Learning the Lesson

The lesson here is clear: There is simply nothing more important than the customer experience.

If you manage to create a positive experience, your brand will get stronger over time, and can then be "lent out" to develop new product categories.

However, if the experience is tepid, or negative, the only reason that people will stick with your product is if they can't find a viable alternative.

Get the picture?

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