Remember those horrendous Windows commercials with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld? Running in late 2008, the ads proved symbolic of Microsoft’s own failings at the time: What were they about? Was Microsoft Vista? Was Microsoft tablets? Could they be on phones anymore? While Apple and Google were reinventing themselves for the mobile era, Microsoft was making commercials about nothing.
Today, the stakes of Microsoft’s identity are even higher. They need to leverage their Windows 8 OS to retain a foothold on PCs and find that lost chunk of the mobile market through Windows Phone 8. The Surface has to take off. The inevitable Xbox 720 needs to be as relevant as the Xbox 360. And it all starts with Metro, the design language that holds everything together like glue.
About a year ago, Microsoft tapped Wolff Olins to handle branding on Windows 8, the OS that would spill over into every other device Microsoft had planned. Branding their crown-jewel operating system is as much of an affiliation with Microsoft as Wolff Olins can disclose, but from a product architecture standpoint, the Windows 8 brand would naturally be bigger than Windows 8 itself. It would have to redefine Microsoft and its products as competitors—the OS would be the "tip of a spear" in a new, design-forward line of products, some of which haven’t even been announced yet.
And on top of that? Wolff Olins wanted staying power. They wanted an identity that would last longer than a few Seinfeld spots.
"When we built the [branding] system, it’s not just for Windows 8," Executive Creative Director Todd Simmons tells me. "It’s actually built for Windows 9, 10, 11, and every Windows to come."
A project of this magnitude was too much for any one company to handle. "Our role was kind of like the conductor of this concert, if you will," Simmons says. Wolff Olins created the brand standards, but Pentagram crafted the logo. Crispin Porter + Bogusky made the TV commercials. R/GA handled digital ads. Ideo was brought in for product packaging. And we’re probably overlooking a dozen other companies who handled various significant pieces. (Wolff Olins cheekily calls this engineer-like system of organization a "brand OS" of its very own.)
The new strategy was about scale and diversity, consumption and creation. To Wolff Olins, it was time for Microsoft to remind the world that they were Micro-mother@$#*ing-soft.
"If you’re serving a billion consumers every single day, and you’re all around the world, that’s a pretty enviable position. That must mean you have a point of view on the role you’re playing, and you have an incredible window into that world," Simmons says. "We wanted to pull that back into the brand and not be shy about the scale of Microsoft."
To capture the scale, Wolff Olins traveled the world, twice, with photographer Todd Selby, building a photography and video library that would help redefine the identity of not just Windows 8 but Microsoft as a whole. They’ve shot in places like Los Angeles, Barcelona, Beijing, Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Dubai, and Mumbai.
"We’ve gone all around, and the idea is to reflect with the Windows brand the context in which these products play roles in people’s lives—and do it in a really celebratory way," Simmons says. "The Windows audience is everyone. It’s open. It always has been."
It just so happens that, when it comes to smiling faces using Windows 8 products, there’s a huge opportunity for overlap with other Microsoft products. That includes Surface, sure, but also Bing, Office, and Internet Explorer.
"They have all these brands. What we wanted to do is get them working better together and be the sum total of Microsoft as an ecosystem," Simmons says. "We wanted to allow each member of the brand to be themselves as well. We don’t want to create a monolithic version of Microsoft to apply to everything; while we may have a set of common elements, we wanted each of those to manifest uniquely to that brand."
Human photography was a big common element, as were your more standard branding staples, like typography and color palettes. Wolff Olins also spent a lot of time on the voice—the precise diction—of Windows 8.
"You’ll see a lot of ‘we’ statements. It speaks to the collective audience Microsoft serves," Simmons says. "The tonality of being colorful, diverse, vibrant, and inclusive was how we wanted the brand to get to you through all of its pores."
But whether or not you like the new branding, you have to wonder, is Wolff Olins asking for too much? In the fastest moving industry in the world, the team sought to create a brand that will define Microsoft’s flagship software product for potentially decades to come, while at the same time transcending any individual product.
Why not just focus on Windows 8 the operating system—the most important gamble in Microsoft’s history? Isn’t that enough for now? Simmons, very precisely, disagrees.
"I think it’s going to be important for all of these brands to have continuity when everything else is changing," he says. Because if Microsoft really is reinventing itself today, we’ll still need to recognize them tomorrow.