Does Microsoft need a new search brand?

Last fall, some of our sources hinted at an upcoming rebranding effort for Live Search, code named “Rome”.  That renaming effort, seemingly thwarted by all the buzz around Yahoo!, never took place (or at least hasn’t so far).  Yet talk continues to swirl around rebranding Live Search, even including some strong hints by Microsoft Online Services President Kevin Johnson, both at Advance08, and again yesterday at SMX Advanced.

Does Live Search need rebranding?  First of all, what is a brand?  Of course a brand is much more than a catchy new name.  A brand is a conversation, the new thinking goes.  More than just a name and a logo, a brand carries emotional attachment.  In a Wikipedia entry on “Brand”, the authors quote Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks coffee:

“A great brand raises the bar — it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience, whether it’s the challenge to do your best in sports and fitness, or the affirmation that the cup of coffee you’re drinking really matters.”

In a post on Nielsen NetRatings Small Business Professional Center blog, Matt Alderton quotes author Barbara Findley Schenk on brands:

branding is part cosmetic—a name, a logo, and a slogan on your business cards—but more than that, it’s a promise that your customers believe in. “If you can’t make and keep a promise,” she says, “then all the marketing and advertising materials in the world won’t work.”

The easiest way to make customers fall in love with you is to walk your talk. “Great branders realize that the brand is either made or broken not by what you say, but by what you do,” Schenck says.

“The magic ingredient is consistency,” Schenck says. “If a business knows what it stands for and delivers messages and experiences that consistently reinforce how the business is different and more relevant than all competing options, it will succeed in developing consumer knowledge and, eventually, esteem. As a result of this consistency, it will win out over businesses that shift with the wind, regardless of how beautifully they’ve polished their identities or their marketing materials.”
In other words, consistency breeds trust—and building trust is what branding’s really all about.

And so in relating these tidbits to Live Search, we begin to see the problems Microsoft is facing.  Live Search hasn’t “raised the bar” up to this point, in fact it has struggled mightily to reach the bar that others have set.  Microsoft has been overly worried about trying to control the conversation, and not worried enough about “walking the walk”.  It hasn’t been consistent, and in fact isn’t up until this very day, when it can’t get behind a brand and get on with it.  The real problem with the Live Search brand isn’t the name or the logo, it’s that what the logo stands for hasn’t been defined, and frankly hasn’t been very good.

Interestingly, although Microsoft says it has “moved on” from the Yahoo! acquisition, and indeed Kevin Johnson said yesterday that by moving on, Microsoft was now free to “fix” the Live Search brand, all indications are that a Yahoo! deal is far from dead.  Even if something less than an acquisition happens (and Carl Icahn made even clearer today that he’s not about to stand for anything other than a new deal that sees Microsoft acquiring Yahoo!, although we’ll see where that goes, maybe as early as next week), those talks are all around search.  And Microsoft can’t define a search product until it declares its intentions regarding Yahoo!, including actually combining the two search products, not just signing papers. Until Microsoft either completes a deal or Carl Icahn goes away, a cloud will remain over the future of a search brand at Microsoft, with or without a new name.

For right now, Live Search needs to work on developing consistency and trust. That may be beginning to happen with a new focus on commercial search; alignment with, but separation from other Live products (Live Mesh, Office Live, Windows Live); and some serious market penetration deals like the one with HP, but there is still a lot of work to do before a new name would make much if any difference.  Search relevance needs to get better, search share needs to grow, and users need to begin to see how Live Search is not only different but better.

Microsoft’s brand problem with Live Search isn’t the name or the logo but the product itself, and the only way to fix the brand is to continue to work on building something worth branding.