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Microsoft's marketing follows Apple's playbook

Microsoft should charge Apple for its campaign geared around PC prices: it is cementing the idea that Macs are an aspirational product.

At some point, clever marketing can backfire.

It's been quite a run for Microsoft of late. After sleeping for nearly three years while Apple successfully bashed it every night on network television with the Mac vs. PC ad campaign, Microsoft has sobered up and taken the offensive over the last several months with a series of marketing messages comparing the relative prices of Macs and PCs made by Microsoft's partners.

Make what you will of Lauren and Giampaolo's sincerity, there's no denying that the ads have struck a nerve. For years, fanboys of various stripes have fought vicious battles armed with HTML tags over the proper way to compare the prices of Macs and PCs, and by tapping into that, Microsoft's Windows marketing team has shown it has a pulse.

But perhaps someone at Microsoft should start to wonder what kind of branding message they are implanting in the public mind.

Microsoft's public-relations squad e-mailed reporters Thursday morning with another cutesy message regarding the "Apple Tax," because next week is Tax Day. (Get it?) My colleague Ina Fried has all the details on the maze of twisty passages Microsoft followed to calculate the Apple Tax, but the gist is basically the same as you've heard before: Macs are expensive, PCs are cheaper, and in these troubled economic times, won't you do the right thing for yourself and your family and save your money?

It's a reasonable tactic: every marketing student learns about the Four Ps very early on in their education, and price is an essential weapon in any business plan. But in continuing to push this strategy, Microsoft is inadvertently reinforcing every single branding message Apple has ever attached to the Mac.

Virtually everyone who has ever used a personal computer has used Windows, meaning that almost every single computer user on the planet has developed an association with Windows. Most of those current associations still center on Windows 95 and Windows XP, which got the job done but also introduced the world to massive security threats, software engineer jargon, and the concept of hitting the "Start" button to stop using the computer.

That's what Apple has so successfully exploited with the smarmy Mac vs. PC campaign. The ads positioned the Mac as not only a superior computing experience to Windows, but a hipper one.

Microsoft has essentially conceded that point. As others have noted, Microsoft's shoppers don't ever wonder about the relative merits of Finder versus Windows Explorer in its latest series of ads. Instead, they focus completely on trying to make a hardware-to-hardware price comparison between various notebooks.

Yet, Microsoft is a software company. And software, not hardware, is where you form a lasting relationship with a computer.

With its current ad campaign, Microsoft--perhaps the most dominant consumer software company the planet has yet to produce--is doing nothing to repair the damage done to the Windows brand by the Mac vs. PC campaign. One could argue the campaign is right for the times, as the company has (wisely) pretty much given up on trying to sell Windows Vista, Windows 7 isn't ready yet, and any rational person is watching their money more closely than they did in 2008.

But when Windows 7 is ready, Microsoft will have a bit of a dilemma on its hands. It could find it hard to sell Windows as a better experience than Mac--even if it is--because it has spent so much time and money on convincing people that Windows PCs are a bargain.

Argue all you want about the Apple Tax--it doesn't matter. There has always been, and will always be, a sizable group of people willing to pay extra for certain consumer goods simply because they carry an extra level of status. For years, the companies that sell those goods have profited quite handsomely from delivering two services: a quality product, and a status symbol.

Under Steve Jobs, Apple has almost always sought to position the Mac as an antiestablishment high-end computer, a computer for those who "think different" and get excited by their computers. Price is not a consideration for those willing to think different.

The only thing the PC industry is excited about right now are Netbooks, which they fail to mention are eroding their margins even more than they have already been eroded after decades of price wars. And now Microsoft is once again driving the price message, training consumers to expect ever lower prices from their computer salesperson.

Apple, meanwhile, with the best margins in the personal computer industry and two highly profitable consumer electronics products funding its growth, has now had its marketing message of the last two years--Macs are better than PCs--amplified by its rival's message--PCs are cheaper than Macs.

While the world needs Kias, the world wants BMWs, and anyone old enough to grasp a dollar understands that most times, you get what you pay for. Consumer confidence will one day return, and in taking the "Apple Tax" campaign to new heights (or lows) Microsoft has not only strained the bounds of credulity, it has cemented the idea that Macs are an aspirational product.