A Brand Catastrophe

The thrill of ubiquity. The agony of defeat. What can NBC’s Olympic video technology gaffe tell us about rich experiences?

I haven’t watched the Beijing Olympics as much as I would have liked to. Unlike the 2004 Summer Olympics, I was reassured that I’d see it online this year and get my time in.

But, hark, the gods of technology have raised their voices and excluded me from the online-video-viewing kingdom. NBC’s decision to use the Microsoft Silverlight 2.0 platform for video meant I was one of the few lowly T-shirt-wearing Mac users who had no options and no ability to see the videos. How did this happen? I thought those two guys in the Apple commercials made a big impression on the rich world of user experience? Wasn’t anyone from NBC watching? Or were they too busy rebooting their PCs and trying to understand the philosophical metaphor hidden in the blue screen of death?

Some may call it platform arrogance. Others may call it a necessary business decision. I call it a brand catastrophe. This isn’t about brand sponsorship (read: commercials) and the damage they’ve caused. As a Mac user, I don’t hate them — because I didn’t get a chance to see what they were sponsoring. This is about technology and entertainment brand damage.

NBC and Microsoft had a lot to do before they got the online video boat away from the dock, but in that typical one-sided competitive view of the world corporations have, they blew it. Where they may have messed up is in thinking about market penetration and not user experience. And they had four years to figure out how all users could see the videos. Really, did they think we’d buy the reason that there wasn’t enough time? What a missed opportunity for Microsoft as well; it was an easy chance to demonstrate why a PC can deliver as great an experience as a Mac. Maybe it’s just trying to be consistent in some self-destructive way.

What this tells us is users don’t have a say in these kinds of decisions. And corporations that make these decisions have little interest in doing what works for all users — just what makes sense to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone came up with a hack to solve this problem. The masses are not passive. They’re willing to break the rules to gain access to anything that wasn’t available to everyone. In that line of thinking, they aren’t breaking the law — just correcting an oversight.

In our new world of technology, issues like these are negative brand experiences. As big as bringing online video of the Olympics is for NBC and Microsoft, excluding a few users is tantamount to a human rights violation in the real world. Marketers should keep this in mind when they decide to bring a video, a rich media banner, or anything that deserves proprietary technology into the mix.

Marketers are deluding themselves if they think users care about the reasons they can’t see their content. The meaning of technology in our access-driven world is about ubiquity, democracy, and experience. Failing on just one of these fronts is a brand catastrophe.

OK, back to the TV set I go. Hello Olympics, goodbye sleep.

For another take on NBC’s choice of a video platform for the Olympics, see Rebecca Lieb’s “The Gods of Olympus.”

Related reading

Vector graphic of a megaphone spewing out business themed items, such as a laptop, tablet, pen, @ symbol and smartphone