NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Whenever I see Buick (a division of General Motors (GM) ) television ads, I cringe. The idea that somebody younger than what we have come to know as the typical Buick customer would buy one of their cars just because GM tells us cute girls with blue hair drive them doesn't resonate. At least not with me.
First, a Buick spot that's probably better than the blue-haired girl one and is representative of the brand's campaign to lower the average age of its consumer:
Second, the numbers: Buick sales in the U.S. up 18% year-over-year as of June. Up 14% in China. Buick Encore (that's the utility crossover vehicle that comes between a car and SUV) sales up 82% compared to June 2013. Buick's success with the Encore provides the best comparison to Microsoft's feeble attempts to take on Apple (AAPL) with the Surface tablet. You can learn a lot about top decision makers in companies by looking at their marketing.
At Buick, there was/is a clear path. We need to appeal to younger car buyers. We see where the market is going so we'll build and brand vehicles that not only ride but lift that tide. That's exactly what the Encore does. Alongside this theme, Buick either ditched or reimagined its stodgy fleet. The approach has worked; Buick is a bright spot during relatively turbulent times at General Motors.
Meantime, at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer conceived this device -- the Surface tablet -- to be the all-in-one computing machine consumers never asked for. And new CEO Satya Nadella appears to have no problem following in the footsteps of his predecessor's ineptitude.
Details on Page Two -- read them before you (not you, but a small handful of tortured souls) go into denial and defense mode ...
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.
--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.