Final Analysis: Do Microsoft's Celebrity Endorsements Work?

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Do celebrities influence you? More specifically, do their endorsements make you buy stuff? Are you more likely to shell out a few hundred bucks on a Windows Phone 8 because Gwen Stefani says it allows her to stay creative and never miss a thing in her busy life? Will it make a difference to you if Jay-Z, an old Friend of Microsoft, jumps aboard the Windows Phone bandwagon, as has been reported by some media outlets?

In case you haven’t noticed, Microsoft likes famous people. Remember when Jerry Seinfeld appeared with Bill Gates in those goofy TV commercials in 2008? Or when Queen Latifah helped Gates announce Microsoft’s vision for digital entertainment in 2004? Jay Leno shows up regularly as a Microsoft accomplice. Conan O’Brien, too.

Attaching the company to famous people is a strategy that, for better or worse, is something Microsoft’s marketing execs believe in deeply. It’s their way of telling the rest of us that it’s OK to want and own something Microsoft makes.

At the official launch of Windows Phone 8 in October, former iPhone user Jessica Alba joined Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer onstage to tout the features and advantages of the new phone. Alba wasn’t articulate or even all that knowledgeable about the product, but the point was obvious: Here was this glamorous young actress—a busy mom to boot—offering her cherished imprimatur to the media horde.

Same with Stefani. She’s an accomplished singer. A fashion mogul. A wife and a mom trying to keep her life in balance. And the Windows Phone 8 helps her do that. Why wouldn’t we want one, too?

As Thom Gruhler, Microsoft’s vice president for Windows Phone marketing, put it recently to The Seattle Times: “It’s creating this permission. I know it’s OK. It’s acceptable. I can pull that out at a dinner party and say, ‘Hey, Gwen Stefani has that phone. Check it out.’”

Don’t know about you, but if I’m at a dinner party where someone pulls out his or her smartphone and starts dropping celeb names, I am long gone before the tiramisu arrives. But that’s just me. Celebrity endorsements are as old as advertising. I mean, if you’re a caveman and you’ve just discovered fire, wouldn’t you covet an endorsement from the celebrated artist who’s been doing all those critically acclaimed cave paintings? (“Before, I could only paint during the daytime. Org’s fire invention allows me to be creative all the time. I absolutely love it!”)

It’s human nature to attach an idea that you think is cool to someone who is perceived as cool. It’s also human nature to look at celebrity endorsements and wonder what they imply about a company that uses them. Are these tactics rooted in inspiration? Or desperation?

Writing in Ad Age last year, marketing executive Jonathan Salem Baskin worried that Apple had lost some of its own considerable cachet by employing Samuel L. Jackson, Zooey Deschanel and John Malkovich to promote the iPhone’s Siri feature. “Hiring famous people is what Microsoft or Acura do when they get Jerry Seinfeld to try to make their brands funny,” Baskin declared. “It’s what packaged goods brands do when they can’t think of anything better to talk about.”

Not that Apple hasn’t used celebrities before. But Baskin’s point is that Apple doesn’t need celebrities. It usually is happy to let its products do the talking. Which leads me to wonder if Apple felt uneasy about the Siri feature and decided to ask the cool kids for help. And if Microsoft will ever feel confident enough not to rely on them.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Final Analysis: Won’t You Come Home, Bill Boeing?

Final Analysis: Won’t You Come Home, Bill Boeing?

How can we celebrate such a momentous birthday when the honoree doesn’t even live here?
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Elsewhere in this month's issue you’ll find congratulatory notes honoring The Boeing Company on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. Allow me to add my own felicitations.

I just wonder if we all might get a little more jazzed about this upcoming centennial — the actual date is July 15 — if Boeing were still an honest-to-goodness Seattle company.

Sure, it still employs nearly 80,000 people in the Puget Sound region and helps drives our economy. But the day 15 years ago when Boeing announced it was going to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago is the day it essentially placed thumb to nose and said, “Buh-bye. We’re bigger than Seattle.”

I remember thinking at the time, “This makes no sense.” It still doesn’t. It was a move calculated by a CEO more interested in expediency than in legacy. Former Boeing CEO Phil Condit said it wasn’t unusual for a big corporation to have its headquarters distant from its factories. “What we are doing is being done for the benefit of the corporation,” Condit told shareholders at the time. “We want to grow The Boeing Company. If headquarters is to do its job, it must stand separate from any one of the business units.”

Seriously? Boeing is hardly a conglomerate. Despite the acquisitions of recent years, Boeing is and always will be a maker of airplanes and other things that fly through air and space. Condit wanted Boeing to be another United Technologies or another Textron, but it was really more of a true conglomerate in the 1930s, when it operated airlines, engine makers, propeller companies and other enterprises before the feds put the kibosh on all that vertical integration.

Boeing has prospered — and has helped thousands of Puget Sound families prosper — for generations. To suggest that the company is better off by having its corporate headquarters 1,700 miles from its main factories and most of its employees is just silly. What’s more believable is that Boeing wants to isolate itself from the fallout as it continues to ship jobs from Washington to less union-friendly states like South Carolina and Oklahoma. Since November 2012, Boeing employment in Washington state has declined by more than 10 percent — around 8,600 jobs — despite spectacularly generous tax incentives extended by the state Legislature to persuade Boeing to keep production of the 777X airliner in state.

It’s this kind of “thank you” — and the decamping of the corporate HQ staff to Chicago — that rubs Seattle the wrong way. We should be jumping up and down, waving balloons and having parades in Boeing’s honor next month. But am I the only one who gets the feeling that Boeing is still doing business in Washington state because it simply doesn’t want to spend the stupid sums of money it would take to move its Renton and Everett operations to cheaper “right to work” states?

Condit changed the culture at Boeing, and, judging from the difficult launch of the 787 Dreamliner, it’s a culture change that didn’t take. I’m inclined to believe his predecessors from Bill Boeing on would never have moved the company headquarters to Chicago, and I’d be willing to bet that the people who run the commercial airline business here would rather have the 500 or so headquarters people back in Seattle where they belong.

Whether that ever happens depends on what Boeing’s future CEOs value more: being proud of Boeing’s remarkable history or being fearful that its remarkable history somehow diminishes its opportunities.

John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine