NBC and Microsoft Split – Which Brand is the Biggest Winner?

When NBC and Microsoft entered a joint venture nearly two decades ago, MSNBC was born, and many people in the branding community wondered, “Why?” On July 15, 2012, the relationship came to an end when NBC News announced that it had acquired 100% control of MSNBC.com. Immediately, all traffic to MSNBC.com was redirected to NBCNews.com. However, the MSNBC brand won’t die, and a new MSNBC.com site will debut in 2013 without Microsoft. That leads many to wonder, which brand is the biggest winner?

msnbcNBC, Microsoft, and MSNBC – How They Got Here

It could be argued that the joint venture was odd from the beginning and didn’t bring any additional value to either the NBC or Microsoft brands independently. Instead, MSNBC became its own brand, a problem that NBC News president Steve Capus references as a motivation for the split — brand confusion between NBC News’ broadcast operation and the cable news property of MSNBC.

As Charlie Warzel of Adweek reported, Capus explained on a conference call with reporters, “While we truly value MSNBC.com, we also think the site isn’t fully representative of either property.” To that end, there is speculation that MSNBC’s liberal programming is a primary reason for the split, but later in the same call, Capus denied that saying, “There’s a litmus test and it never points in that direction. People understand the difference between NBC and MSNBC.” But remember, MSNBC will retain its brand name.

NBC is now hyping its ownership and control of MSNBC as the next step in entering a “different league,” as Capus calls it citing the news organization’s depth and breadth as something people don’t understand. The first steps since NBC fully purchased MSNBC will be to bring onboard hundreds of MSNBC.com employees, and Adweek reports that many of those employees will continue to work in the MSNBC facilities in Redmond, Washington where a new “innovation center for digital media” will be located. NBC will also take over ad sales from Microsoft.

Which Brand Wins?

So which brand is the biggest winner post-breakup? Certainly, a split from Microsoft doesn’t hurt the NBC brand. This was a brand association that may have made NBC seem technologically innovative for a very brief time, but the perception faded quickly. Losing the Microsoft connection will have little effect on consumers’ perceptions of the NBC brand.

What about MSNBC? Honestly, the split could help or hurt MSNBC. It’s too early to know what will become of this brand. It has a loyal audience, and it’s a focused brand with a perception and reputation that drives consumer expectations. The brand typically delivers on its promise and meets consumer expectations with its programming. Only time will tell if the “new” MSNBC continues to meet those expectations under its new structure.

And how about Microsoft? This is the brand that I’d crown the biggest winner. Microsoft has lost focus in recent years, and moving away from MSNBC gives it a chance to redefine its brand focus, which is something the company desperately needs to do. The question is whether or not Microsoft can leverage this opportunity to find direction and focus, redefine its brand promise, create new brand perceptions, and deliver on a new set of brand expectations — all of which have been hurting in consumers’ minds for years.

Which brand do you think is the biggest winner in this story? Or is it still too early to choose?

Image: Ben Lakey

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Gunelius
Susan Gunelius, MBA is a 25-year marketing and branding expert and President and CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She is the author of 10 books about marketing, branding and social media, and her marketing-related articles appear on top media websites such as Entrepreneur.com and Forbes.com. She is also the Founder and Editor in Chief of WomenOnBusiness.com, an award-winning blog for business women.