Is Outlook.com for businesses, consumers or both?

A week ago, Microsoft formally launched Outlook.com -- its free, web-based email service -- to the public. The service had been in preview since last July.

Microsoft has for too long had a quartet of email offerings, including Hotmail, MSN and the now retired Entourage. Not surprisingly, this portfolio has been a source of confusion and complication for businesses, consumers and Microsoft brand management. By formally launching Outlook.com, Microsoft is now in the final throes of migrating to a single offering that streamlines its marketing spend and brings clarity to customers.

Simplifying its email offerings is long overdue for Microsoft. But from a brand portfolio management standpoint, this is a head-scratcher. Outlook is a brand that has existed largely for professional use. We’ve all used Outlook at work, and from that perspective, it is known quite well. But is it the brand I’d prefer for my personal email use?

Microsoft’s decision to champion Outlook going forward begs the question: Is Outlook.com for businesses, consumers or both? By using an existing brand name so closely associated with business use, Microsoft confuses prospective users of its intent. Personal email is just that -- personal. From the start, Gmail and Yahoo have had a built-in sense of humanity and fun. Unlike Outlook, it’s clear they’re for personal use.

Given how Microsoft has struggled to embrace the mobile platform and the cloud, it’s hard to understand how management decided on Outlook, its long-time client-based email product. If Microsoft is trying to take a bite out of Gmail, using this brand is a missed opportunity. The decision also reinforces the company’s inability to divorce from legacy brands, which are more associated with the past than Microsoft's future. Don’t get me wrong -- Outlook isn’t a bad product. But the product -- the brand -- is tied to a world in which we all used PCs and Windows. And that’s not where the world is heading.

One alternative could have been to instead champion Hotmail, which, from a cloud-based perspective, is the best of the Microsoft email brands. There’s little association with the workplace, and a lot of people are still very proud of their Hotmail email addresses. Or Microsoft could have kept both Outlook and Hotmail -- one for businesses and the other for personal use. Microsoft also could have created a new brand, built from the ground up and designed to appeal to the market from the ground up. And the company deserves kudos for its experience doing this with Xbox and Bing.

I’ve talked enough about the brand, but let me address one other area that’s impacting people’s perspective -- the multimillion dollar advertising campaign supporting the launch of Outlook.com. Calling this an advertising campaign is a misnomer. It’s a political attack.

Microsoft runs ads attacking Google over Gmail privacy. Just watch one of the “Scroogled” television spots that slam Gmail. Scroogled.com says, "Outlook.com is different -- we don’t go through your email to sell ads". But most people I’ve asked all say the same thing: "Is this news? This is how Google makes money. Don’t all email providers do this?"

Microsoft is not giving consumers a compelling enough reason to switch to Outlook. To me, this does the new product an injustice. Outlook has some nice improvements. Are they game-changers? Likely not, but service still has good, useful features. But you’d never know it from the advertisements.

The irony here is that while Microsoft may not go through your email, it does monitor your search behavior on Bing. So for the company to claim moral high ground through advertising is hypocritical at best.

Outlook.com -- the product, the strategy, the campaign -- is Microsoft’s attempt to get back in the email game. Ultimately it’s just confusing and an injustice to the product the company is trying to promote. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it’s not likely to be the Hail Mary pass that’s going to propel the company back to consumer relevance -- at least not in the email space.

Photo Credit: Vlue/Shutterstock

Jason Cieslak is a managing director at Siegel+Gale, a global brand strategy and customer experience firm. He lives in Los Angeles.

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