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The coming brand war over business collaboration - and how Microsoft, Google, and Facebook can play to win

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Companies that "think brand first" stand a greater chance of success than those who don't. 

It's a nice theory that also happens to be fact - and this fact has been proven over and over again. (See accompanying graphic from Brand Asset Consulting, favorably comparing the performance of strong brands with the overall S&P 500.)

If everybody knows that strong brands do better than weak ones or generics, why does anybody ever deviate from the principles that make brands strong? 

The answer I think is not that they ever forget about the brand. 

Rather, brand screwups think incorrectly about their brand, in a few respects:

* First, they lack a fundamental understanding of what a brand is (an internal organizing principle of the business as well as an external communication tool). So they treat brand just like advertising and change it up when it gets boring.

* Second, if they do understand that brand = business principle, they don't know exactly what that principle is sufficiently to articulate it.

* Third, even if they can articulate it, it's not necessarily what the customer wants or needs from the company but rather what the company has decided it ought to be. 

Technology companies tend to make this mistake - call it "thinking brand stupid" - over and over again, primarily because they are so impressed with themselves that they believe the value is in the technology - rather than in the concept represented by the brand. 

A great example of erroneous brand thinking is Microsoft, a company strong because it owns so much desktop real estate but weak because it is out of touch with users, slow-footed, and tends toward braggadocio and competitor-bashing

The value Microsoft brings to the world is not inherently the technology. Rather, it is that the company helps the average business person to be productive. They have been fortunate to create a few very strong products that accomplish this. 

So whenever Microsoft focuses on productivity, they win. But when they market products for products' sake, they lose. 

Case in point: Sharepoint. It's something we're stuck with because we're so wedded to all their other products. But in and of itself, it's ugly, complicated, and difficult for the average user to learn and use. (It took me about three years, and even then I had to set up workarounds using Excel and Access that involve so many steps to keep going, nobody normal could recreate them.)

What's crazy is that collaboration is increasingly essential to productivity today. A huge business opportunity. But Microsoft is so arrogant and so focused on itself and not on the user - it is so marketing-blind - that if anybody creates an alternative with half the bells and whistles but twice the usability it will take off.

That company might be Google, currently the world's #1 brand but one that seems to be flailing a bit in search of a guiding star. 

To my mind, Google's brand is reducible not to searchability but to mastery of complex information, as represented by the Internet. Google helps people overcome the not unrealistic fear that they are drowning pawns in the sea of techno-information. 

Instead of trying to take over every function that the Net offers, Google would do well to take a bite out of Microsoft's jugular: their overconfidence that they and they alone are the trusted vendor of business productivity.

Think about it: The average office worker is drowning not only in work but also in information. They create documents and later can't find them; or must search for work that others have done that they know nothing about.

I would actually like to see a duel between Microsoft and Google over the future of business collaboration. For whereas Microsoft has the edge in the business market because of the perception of security and enterprise strength it offers, Google knows how to make advanced technology accessible and friendly. 

When it comes to collaboration, it is desperately important that the new technology be friendly - because the concept of sharing information is about as scary as can be. While right now Microsoft has the edge because people think of it as "the" go-to brand for business, there is an opportunity for Google and Apple to edge themselves in. 

Maybe it sounds trivial, but I foresee big wins for the brands that make life easier on the little things. Examples:

* The font size of the words on the desktop, and the size of the icons - they are usually way too small. 

* The computer takes too long to load.

* The average user doesn't understand security issues, or warnings.

* Self-service repair is challenging.

* There is too much functionality, making it difficult to do basic things.

Faster, simpler, easier, friendlier - not necessarily cheaper - without compromise of security or interoperability - and you will be a force to beat.

There is a technology company that could trump all others in doing exactly this when it comes to collaboration solutions: Facebook. Yes, I think they can succeed in the business market. 

I believe that Facebook has business potential because, despite being technologically sophisticated beyond belief - these are coders to the core - Facebook is grounded in a simple, clear and compelling philosophy. 

The vision of Facebook is that friendship is everything. It's that simple. And oh yeah, you do want to have friends - and relatives - everywhere. Is it really so farfetched that Facebook would be pervasive at work for the same people who use it at home?

Recently I read of a new outlets going Facebook-only. It makes sense considering research unearthing the tendency of women, at least, to check it before even brushing their teeth in the morning - isn't that when you want people to get the news?

Similarly, Facebook has now integrated Skype into video chat (Microsoft is supposedly acquiring Skype so this is an alliance with teeth). Given that people routinely use Skype for business calls, and that they friend their coworkers, watch for Facebook now to make inroads into the business-videochat market.

Remember, Mark Zuckerberg's belief is that privacy is now largely superfluous. He believes in  mixing the personal and the professional online. I believe it's not only about "social norms" as he says, but really because he believes keeping those spheres separate is hypocritical.

So why not bring the personal self into the business environment? 

And then bring collaboration somehow into that mix, assuming that they can leverage the Microsoft brand to build in trustworthy security safeguards? 

(I actually see those two companies as potentially incredibly powerful together, if the "Microsofties" can ever stop barking for five minutes.)

In the end, the lesson for technology companies and all companies is that you must always have a passionately held, compelling-to-an-audience belief guiding your efforts no matter how technical they seem. 

If you can establish yourself as the trusted provider of a piece of somebody's life, they will ultimately give you that business and more. 

But if you reduce yourself to a commodity provider of bits and parts, you will be elbowed out by somebody else who does a better job of posing as a friend.

Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!

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Image source here

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