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Even Buick Is Kicking Microsoft's Butt

By: Rocco Pendola | 08/16/14 - 09:30 AM EDT

Stocks in this article: MSFTGMAAPL

Ballmer ran an unfocused, imprecise and roughshod marketing "campaign" that positioned the Surface as everything to everybody. Along with other purveyors of Windows-powered tablets that, often, double as pseudo laptops, Microsoft had schoolgirls in plaid outfits rocking the Surface alongside businesspeople just trying to get some real work done on an airplane. It was and remains confusing to say the least. Worse yet, to tout the Surface, Microsoft, and Ballmer specifically, used tactics and made statements that should have drawn the attention of the SEC.

As I touched on last week in Microsoft Will Never Learn, Keeps Attacking Apple, Nadella focused Microsoft's pitch for the Surface tablet, but that doesn't make it any less misguided. Unlike Buick, Nadella isn't skating to the puck. He's attempting to tell people what they want even if they really don't or never will want it. Still. After what is now years of abject failure.

It was a Steve Jobs' thing to show and tell people what they want before they knew they wanted it. It remains to be seen if, under Tim Cook, this is an Apple thing. Either way, it's not easy to do. Very few people and, in turn, companies can do it. And certainly not Microsoft, with a device that has never caught on anywhere close to the extent of Apple's mobile computing products.

It appears as if Nadella, in focusing the Surface ad campaign, is about to make similar mistakes to the ones BlackBerry (BBRY) made when Apple was in the process of destroying it.

He's not only trying to shove a device (Surface) and a concept (all-in-ones) down peoples' throats, he's positioning them as somehow for the more serious consumer interested in doing work or real play. He's effectively (not effectively as in it will work, but effectively as in this is basically though not officially what he's accomplishing!) chiding Apple devices as less powerful toys for people who need to be told they're not as efficient, productive or serious as they ought to be. Forget that the entire proposition is untrue -- why would you talk down to such a large segment of a consumer marketplace that has already spoken?

It's not like Microsoft and Apple are locked in a tight battle with respect to Surface and iPad/Macbook sales. In that case, Nadella would have some bravado built in with which to work from. And it's not as if he operates from the position of likable underdog. It's Microsoft for goodness sake. So Nadella goes the doomed BlackBerry route after Ballmer went the doomed BlackBerry route.

At this juncture, it's appropriate to flash back to something I wrote in November 2012 -- Apple's iPad Doesn't Confuse Holiday Shoppers -- just so you don't think I'm completely crazy, unfair and out of left field for going after Microsoft and the artist formerly known as RIM in tandem.

Now, Nadella, with a cluelessness nobody seems to want to expose, is taking another page out of the BlackBerry playbook (a pun is not my intention). He's doing the whole Apple products are toys and we have serious, secure, more powerful alternatives that -- as if he's marketing for J.C. Penney (JCP) or something -- fit your lifestyle. I know Microsoft isn't saying exactly that, but they might as well be. Because that's the shallow tripe they're trying to sell. And it's not going to work.

If Nadella doesn't do the right thing -- and ditch the Surface and Microsoft hardware ambitions outside of Xbox all together -- he should go the Buick route, which isn't all that different from the excellent path Patrick Doyle set Domino's Pizza (DPZ) on.

Be humble. Make fun of yourself. In fact, be self-deprecating to a point where people say I can't believe they're doing that. With this type of marketing -- marketing Buick (and Domino's) pulled off so well -- Microsoft's Surface tablet might have a fighting chance against Apple. Probably not. But at least people like me wouldn't be able to fault the company for trying.

Follow @mynameisrocco

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

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Rocco Pendola writes for TheStreet. He lives in Santa Monica. Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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