If you’re sports fan, you probably caught a prominent tech user strongly expressing his opinion about a product on national TV that’s gotten quite a bit of press coverage. The “tech user” in question was Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots who was seen slamming a Microsoft Surface tablet into an equipment box during the game on September 16. In the post-game interview, Belichick spoke at length about his frustration with the Surface and his decision to go back to using printed photos on the sidelines. “As you probably noticed, I’m done with the tablets,” Belichick said. “They’re just too undependable for me.”
Microsoft has been quick to defend its $400 million Surface tablet promotion program with the NFL. In a blog defending Surface on October 21, Yusuf Mehdi, the corporate vice president for Microsoft’s Windows and Devices group, stated in a blog titled “Surface and the NFL: Changing the Game” that “2,000 Surface devices are deployed at 34 stadiums, and used extensively at over 330 NFL games each year” in conditions ranging from the “frozen tundra of Green Bay, to the 120 degree turf of Miami, through torrential rainstorms and blustery snowstorms”. In the blog post “Surfacing the Facts” in January, 2016, Mehdi stated that no Surface tablets have failed in-game in the two years of the NFL Surface program. In numerous other statements, Microsoft has argued that glitches blamed on the Surface tablet are actually network issues in the stadiums beyond Microsoft’s control. The NFL, for its part, has issued their own statements on a game-by-game basis confirming game-time network problems (e.g. this statement after the 2015 AFC Championship game).
The upshot? Actual technical product quality does not appear to be the problem. Perception is the real glitch. That, and perhaps a football culture lagging behind the technology curve. Adding to Microsoft’s frustrations has been the tendency of players, coaches, and commentators to call Surface tablets “iPads” or “iPad-like devices”.
It makes you wonder just what Microsoft bought with its $400 million promotion.
But consider this: how much worse would the story be for Microsoft if Surface quality was at fault? What if Surface tablets had Samsung-scale hardware issues on the sidelines of football games on national TV? What are the optics of a frustrated player showing a locked-up Surface with a blue screen of death to a stadium full of people? The fact that Microsoft took care of business on the hardware and software front has meant that the problem has been contained to “merely” a problem of proactive marketing and brand communication. Don’t you know that Samsung wishes they had Microsoft’s Surface problems right now?
On the naming front, Microsoft is competing against an Apple, Inc. that has been so successful owning the tablet space that “iPad” has almost become a branded-generic like Kleenex for facial tissues. A commentator calling a Surface an iPad is less of a failure by Microsoft than a sign of the formidable work remaining to be done to build the Surface brand against the iPad brand. Playing defense on the messaging about Surface issues cannot be the end of Microsoft’s strategy to bridge that brand and perception gap.
Microsoft recently launched a testimonial campaign using NFL players and coaches to tout the advantages of Surface vs. printed photos. It’s a good start but still not enough. If the source of the problem for Surface is the network infrastructure of the various NFL stadiums, then Microsoft may want to volunteer additional hardware and expertise to solve those network problems. Surface is being judged for technology adjacent to Surface, but on which Surface is utterly dependent. Going on offense with the stadium owners, and the NFL itself (which controls most of the other wireless tech), may be the only way to get ahead the curve, so that a bigger, more proactive marketing effort won’t be sabotaged by new network-related glitches. Better to invest a few million dollars more in network infrastructure than to let a $400 promotion campaign become a constant source of false allegations about your product which, in fact, is doing a great job (if only more people knew).
In the end, this story illustrates that quality has a context, and that context is not limited to just your own technology; managing product quality is as much about managing perception as the technological reality. But it should also highlight for you how much worse it could be if you’re cutting corners on quality, and playing catchup in the marketing and brand management. As we say all the time these days, #QualityIsNotOptional.