One recent afternoon in New Orleans, a two-hour line snaked around the block for an event in a wax museum that featured a chandelier swing set, handcrafted masks, and a dance competition judged by the queer rapper Big Freedia. Waiting for the free alcohol, partygoers passed three lonely digital tablets plastered to the wall, watched over by two stylish security guards. A dancer jumped from a beam on the ceiling straight into a split. The Windows 8 interface of the tablets on the wall, which remained mostly untouched throughout the night, were the only signal that the whole strange spectacle had an unlikely sponsor: Microsoft.
The dance performance was part of Microsoft’s 1MSQFT project, which stands for “1 Million Square Feet of Culture”; its website features the boggling tag line “a series of guest curated physical spaces that live on through technology,” but it is actually an event series designed to sneakily hype the Microsoft brand. The particular square feet chosen by Microsoft and its partners to survey are usually tied to high-end cultural destinations, like Sundance, New York Fashion Week or, in the case where I encountered it, the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Two days later at a different event put on by 1MSQFT in New Orleans, I sat on bleachers facing an abandoned dirt lot filled with ATVs, men on horseback and young white women twerking out of the back of a tricked-out convertible. Bounce music and hip-hop blared from a stage over a hundred yards away. A drone hovered above the spectacle, capturing the whole thing for promotional purposes. “This is all about individuality and expression,” shouted the emcee. “That’s what we’re trying to do here!” Once again, the funder of the whole strange event remained far away from the action, relegating its products to a warehouse on the other side of the bleachers. Microsoft did as much as it could to stay away from the experience it spent over a million dollars to create.
Microsoft has, for the past few years, made no secret of its energetic campaign to be cool. The company recently unveiled its new tablet, the unsexily named Surface Pro 3, with space-age promotional spots that lingered on the tablet’s sleek curves without quite explaining what the product actually does. Ads for a previous edition of Surface Pro feature Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson beneath the words “I stay on my game with Surface Pro 2.” But the 1MSQFT project was different: It barely mentioned Microsoft at all. Ed Chase, senior global event manager for Microsoft Windows, explained: “What we don’t want is a big Microsoft logo or a lot of branding throughout the venue, because that will change how you consume the content inside the project. You end up caring more about the brand that is trying to dominate the space.”
There’s nothing new about corporations and their marketers using cultural trends to appeal to younger consumers. What’s different about the 1MSQFT project is that it tries as hard as possible to hide the very brand it seeks to promote. Started out of a brainstorm in 2012 about how best to promote its flailing tablet products, 1MSQFT has already worked with tastemakers like Pitchfork, La Blogotheque and Lucky Peach.
“The brand has a role to play, and that is to support the progress of the artist wherever it leads,” Marissa Shrum, a strategist at Mother, the marketing company that worked with Microsoft to put the project together. “It’s not about becoming invisible. The goal is to have a role, but to remain the authentic role of the ally.” Shrum went on to describe how Microsoft, as an ally, is there to help a cultural scene or artist create unique work with the help of its technology.
For companies like Microsoft, where a million dollars is basically a drop in the bucket, projects like 1MSQFT are a testing ground for exactly how a brand can interact with a subculture -- in the case of the New Orleans event, Bounce music -- that is still authentic and has yet to be commercialized. Instead of taking a dubstep track and using it to sell Mountain Dew, Microsoft would like to see new works of art or local trends emerge organically — with Microsoft’s products quietly beside them from the very beginning.
“I think it’s about supporting without co-opting,” Shrum said. “Even in social media, we’re very careful to not take credit.” Eventually, this line of marketing strategy goes, the company becomes indispensable to the cultural production, and the artists and fans of this scene become a brand-new market for the product.
As companies and marketers learn more about how trends and movements are started, it seems likely that corporations like Microsoft, hungry for appeal with younger and more creative types, will look to even the smallest nooks of culture to find a foothold for their brand. Does this portend a future where cultural historians will write that Tripp dance movement could never have happened without the great support of the Microsoft Corp.? Hard to say. But it’s a far cry from Microsoft’s former strategy of making fun of Google.
Sure, some marketing strategists find Microsoft’s promotional tactics ham-fisted. “The thing with Microsoft is, they’ve never been cool,” said Ed Tsue, strategy director at BBH. “Never in their history. Not even when they revolutionized PCs. They want it so bad, but they just feel like an old guy trying to be cool – they’ve become scared of their own brand.” Tsue added: “They think the young people they’re trying to appeal to will be fooled … and young people don't like to be patronized.”
Looking at the drunk and excited crowd at the dance event, though, or the bewildered and amazed audience at the bike rally that came later, it seemed like this particular crowd -- mostly young white people -- didn’t much care about who was underwriting this event or how it happened. They were clearly having a good time at 1MSQFT, completely oblivious of the brand behind it. And strange as that sounds, it was exactly what Microsoft wanted.