On Friday, when OpenAI’s board suddenly announced it had relieved CEO Sam Altman of his duties, it came as a shock to the tech world. Notably, it also reportedly blindsided Microsoft, OpenAI’s 49% shareholder after its reported $10 billion investment in January.
The ensuing whirlwind since Altman’s ouster has been nothing short of breathtaking. One colleague described it on Monday as akin to “logging on to five seasons of Succession dropping all in one night, omg.” While OpenAI’s brand has endured several days of being treated like a piñata at a 5-year-old’s birthday party on Twitter and other social media platforms, Microsoft, by contrast, has somehow emerged—so far, at least!—as the brand image winner of this bonkers news cycle.
With all the usual cautionary caveats that this OpenAI drama remains a developing story, it seems that Microsoft has recovered quickly from its initial surprise at the Altman news to turn OpenAI’s boardroom lemons into brand lemonAIde. How it’s done so showcases how brand power is not only relevant in an emerging technology but also amid complete freaking chaos.
Let’s start with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s tweet late Sunday night. “We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners. We look forward to getting to know Emmett Shear and OAI’s new leadership team and working with them. And we’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success.”
Notice how Nadella first reiterated his support for the company that Microsoft initially backed in 2019, and then showed his loyalty to and belief in the duo who had exited that same company. How can you lose when you’re supporting both sides—and you appear to be genuine?
Again, this is a fluid situation and maybe this won’t play out as Nadella outlines. Much of the speculation Monday was that this move to hire Altman and Brockman and anyone who follows them is designed to force the OpenAI board to bring Altman back (and almost certainly get removed in the process). What if that doesn’t work? Regardless, Microsoft has hedged its bet in a way that burnishes its brand image as a shrewd innovator and signifies that this is the place to do the most exciting work in AI.
The reaction to Microsoft’s moves illustrates the dramatic shift in the company’s brand image over the past decade or so. As the legendary venture capitalist Bill Gurley tweeted, “If you told me 10 years ago that a group of the smartest engineers in the land would evoke the threat, ‘Do what I say or I will go to work at Microsoft,’ I would not have believed you. Amazing shift in corporate reputation (and much credit to Satya).”
Microsoft’s bold investment in OpenAI and then its aggressive integration of its tech into Microsoft products—the company has put OpenAI’s GPTs into its Bing search engine, sales and marketing software, Azure cloud services, GitHub coding tools, and the Microsoft 365 productivity bundle—erases any memory of its history of missing out on several major cultural shifts in tech. Remember that this is the company that brought a Zune to an iPod fight? You don’t, and that’s because it acquired the pole position on the most important tech jump since the internet itself, just as OpenAI’s ChatGPT went viral.
Now Microsoft looks equal parts innovator and great stabilizer. Safe, secure, and reliable.
Interbrand just released its 2023 Best Global Brands report, and Microsoft ranks second overall, behind only Apple. Daniel Binns, Interbrand’s chief growth officer and North America CEO, tells me that Microsoft is unique on the list, which includes Google, Amazon, Samsung, Coca-Cola, and Nike in its top 10, given how much of its business is B2B. But Binns notes that the many ways people interact with the brand, whether through gaming and Xbox, or at work through its suite of Office products, is what keeps it in high esteem.
“To be able to make this move [for Altman] is just further proof of the potency of the Microsoft brand,” Binns says. “For Sam Altman to come lead [AI] with Microsoft’s resources is phenomenal. Leaning into the maturity of the corporate culture, leaning into visionary leadership, leaning into innovating in an area that is of most interest in the tech world right now, it feels like a golden opportunity for Microsoft to double down on all of those things.”
In a statement about Interbrand’s report, Kathleen Hall, Microsoft’s chief brand officer, said the combination of brand perception and financial performance is a great indicator of the company’s brand health and relevance. “With our acquisition of Activision Blizzard, our prominent leadership position in AI, and our continued commitment to make a positive impact on society, we aspire to be a brand people can trust and build a responsible future with,” Hall said.
On Friday, as the OpenAI news broke, Microsoft’s stock took a 1.7% dip. But after Nadella’s Altman announcement, it quickly recovered to hit a record high on Monday.