Microsoft flubs Live branding, but Google ain't exactly a marketing genius

Microsoft has a problem with branding. While the brands Microsoft, Windows and Vista connotate desktop software and a successful operating system, its latest brand, Windows Live, is a confusing non-entity.

"Microsoft's Live branding has been tremendously confusing and has hurt the company, and it is very likely contributing to the situation they are in right now," said David Smith, an analyst at Gartner, to CNET. "They've created another brand and have not differentiated it."

John Battelle commented on the problem today and points to a conversation at LiveSide about the same. And Battelle's right: It would be better for the market if Microsoft actually succeeded at search. As it stands now, confusion over the Live brand may be contributing to Microsoft's declining search share.

But this recent buzz is anything but new. Almost a year ago, Mary Jo Foley was already talking about how Microsoft's Live brand was already a mess. Microsoft had begun haphazardly pasting the Live moniker onto some services (Hotmail became Windows Live Mail, MSN Messenger became Windows Live Messenger) while leaving other products -- like MSN itself -- without a "Live" component. Even Microsoft employees chimed in, saying it was obvious their branding strategy needed help.

Now, it's obvious to almost everyone that Microsoft's "Live" is little more than a label intended to confer a modicum of "Web 2.0" hipness into the company's stalled online business. And yeah, while brands are all about conferring an image, Microsoft has undermined that image by inconsistently applying the brand. The emperor has no clothes.

And what about Google? Google isn't a marketing genius. Recall that just a few months ago, quite a few people were decrying Google's wide array of unconnected products, and Google's reticence to explain their strategy. And also recall that, outside of search, Google hasn't made a big splash. Ask anybody who isn't a geek, and odds are they haven't heard of most of Google's apps. Hence Sergei's much-publicized effort to streamline the company's products.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has to manage brands for a wide array of products, while Google only has to manage one. If there's a hidden genius in Google's marketing, it's that Google is using its search brand to drag all its additional apps into the limelight. Microsoft, meanwhile, has more to lose -- and more chances to lose it -- when managing new brands.