Microsoft Recovers From the Electric Slide

In the fashion world, there’s a term that gets used from time to time: effortlessly chic. It’s about looking stylish and on-trend — seemingly without even trying. In the brand world, I would say there’s a similar term: authentically cool. Some brands have it. Others, not so much.

Christina Stahlkopf

Senior Consultant at C Space

Christina Stahlkopf is a Senior Consultant in C Space’s Boston office and a core member of our Global Research Team. Christina turns stats to story and is a lead architect of our annual Customer Quotient (CQ) study, which connects key brand relationship behaviors to stronger business performance. A sociologist, ethnographer and author, she’s our in-house pathfinder, constantly mapping out ways for brands to innovate and push boundaries. You’ll often find Christina on the ski slopes or being towed behind a ski boat on Lake Winnipesaukee (pronounced winna-pah-SAW-key) alongside her husband and two children.

Some brands succeed in being authentically cool by creating a genuine cultural connection. (I’m thinking of the brilliant Mountain Dew and Doritos “rap battle” Super Bowl ad with Peter Dinklage.) Miss the pulse of the culture and you will bomb in a full-on, cringe-worthy way. (I’m thinking of that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad.) To Franco’s point: some brand comms are just a bit ‘absurd’.

A failed marketing attempt is uncomfortable to watch because it is symptomatic of a company struggling to connect with its customers. And that is much more troubling than a few bad advertisements. It’s a symptom many of the older brands have, and, often, their panacea is to switch ad agencies. But connecting with customers, especially Gen Z-ers, demands something way more authentic.

To see how it can be done, let’s go back in time to November, 2009.

A dozen Microsoft Store employees, each wearing a primary color t-shirt, clapping and woot!-ing as they “spontaneously” break into the Electric Slide … set to the Black Eyed Peas hit, “I Gotta Feeling.” Mortified, the surrounding customers avert their eyes to the Microsoft tablets sitting on the tables, waiting for the dancing to end. The spectacle lurches on for nearly 5 minutes, otherwise known as an eternity.

The flash-mob-gone-wrong was supposed to create viral buzz for the opening of the second-ever Microsoft Store. It became somewhat of a viral hit. But for all the wrong reasons.

While the dancing stunt was not the cause of Microsoft’s problems at the time, it did personify a deeply rooted one. Microsoft presumed to know what customers thought was cool. But it wasn’t connecting with them, so, really, how could it know? Worse yet, the brand didn’t know itself. Microsoft thought it was injecting fun, whimsy, and spontaneity into its new retail experience and, by extension, its brand. In reality, it looked forced, inauthentic, and totally out of step.

The Microsoft of today is not the same Microsoft of 2009. A lot has changed. Most importantly, Microsoft has rediscovered the consumer pulse, particularly with Gen Z. In 2017, C Space research among 20,000 Americans found that Microsoft has quietly become one of the more relevant and admired tech brands among younger consumers. That’s quite a turnaround from the Electric Slide.

Born into a new technological era, Gen Z has been ingrained with an expectation of digital connectivity, democratized influence, and socialization with everyone, including the brands which they consume. Gen Z takes their interaction with a company personally, expecting a truly reciprocal relationship. They expect to have a voice. They want to be an active collaborator and gravitate toward brands that will partner with them. A study of 15,000 Gen Z’ers by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that when it comes to brand relationships, they seek out authentic opportunities to participate with and contribute to brands.

In step with this approach, Microsoft has shown a willingness to embrace perspectives from outside its corporate HQ. “My passion is to put empathy at the center of everything I pursue – from the products we launch, to the new markets we enter, to the employees, customers and partners,” Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, told Wired last year about his approach to leadership and cultural transformation. Since he took the reins as CEO in 2014, he’s embraced a more open and collaborative management and innovation style than that of his predecessor, Steve Ballmer. One of the first things Nadella did as CEO was revamp the invite list to the company’s annual gathering of top executives. He invited customers and founders of the startups Microsoft acquired to join.

Compare this style to the more authoritative one used by other tech companies; a style that pushes innovation out and eschews any idea that outsiders might have valuable insight to offer. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Steve Jobs famously stated.

While this approach may have worked well for tech companies in the past, it’s being upended by Gen Z. What Gen Z doesn’t want is to be dictated to. And, honestly, who does? For Gen Z, innovation equals collaboration. And C Space’s CQ report reveals that in Microsoft they see a company with more democratic values than its peers, one that keeps an ongoing dialogue with them and integrates people like them – and perspectives like theirs – into the heart of the company. As a result, Gen Z rates Microsoft more highly as a company that “gets them” and has a higher rate of recommendation than any other generation.

I’d say that’s a real reason to break out in dance. Just, please, no more Electric Slide.

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