Brow Beat

Can Microsoft Be Cool?

“There’s a big difference” said hip-hop artist Cee Lo the other day, “between being in touch with your feminine side, and being a lady’s man .” This insight came at a panel discussion held in a crowded room in an event space in Park City, where the annual Sundance Festival is currently taking place. In giant letters, projected on the wall behind Cee Lo and fellow panelist Hype Williams, was a single word: “Bing.”   

Welcome to Microsoft’s ongoing cool campaign. There are always, of course, corporate sponsors at cultural events like Sundance. But rarely maybe never has a tech corporation done so much, spent so much, and reached so hard to try and be cool. The effort, of course, begins from a pretty tough place: MS-DOS, Windows and Excel are not exactly bumpin’. Yet with Bing, Microsoft apparently believes the key to one day breaking Google’s chokehold on search is to be cool, and Sundance is very epicenter of the effort.

What I find particularly fascinating is the fact that Microsoft, unlike Google or Apple, isn’t just aiming for nerd-cool, a more predictable embrace of the inner geek. Not good enough. Instead, while it may seem a stretch, Bing wants to be associated with the unassailably coolest part of the Republic: black America and rap culture. Ergo Microsoft’s sponsorship of Jay-Z’s new book, and its hip-hop events and the rest. With that kind of challenge going, no wonder Google felt they had to replace Eric Schmidt.

Who knows whether it can work or even what working would mean. One of Bing’s marketing directors told me that it’s aiming for “urban audiences” who are “passionate” and that some large percentage of Sundance has a positive association with Bing. How that relates to actually changing search engines is a slightly more complex question, but who knows?  Yet the amount of effort itself does raise the eternal question isn’t the key to being cool not actually trying too hard?

Photograph of Cee Lo Green by Rick Diamond/Getty Images.