Microsoft came out on top in a brand survey conducted by Forrester Research, beating often-trumpeted Apple because of Microsoft's ubiquity in consumers' lives and its cross-generational appeal.
And it didn't hurt that Microsoft kicked off a unified branding, dubbed "One Microsoft," that followed Apple's example and has resonated with American consumers.
"We were surprised by the results, too," said Tracy Stokes, the Forrester analyst who led the team that polled more than 4,500 U.S. adults in August. "Time was definitely a factor. I think the results would have been much different a year or 18 months earlier."
Forrester applied its TRUE methodology -- which it uses to measure brand strength in several vertical markets -- to 10 consumer technology firms it selected, including Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.
Microsoft came out the winner, with Apple in second, Sony in third and Samsung in fourth place.
The keys to Microsoft's move into first, said Stokes, were its unbeatable score in the "Essentials" category -- one of four used in Forrester's calculations -- and its high trust ranking across all age groups.
"Microsoft's essentiality is so ubiquitous, there's really no alternative [in consumers' minds] to Windows and Office," said Stokes of Microsoft's two most-recognized franchises. "Microsoft has a utilitarian essentiality, not the kind of emotional essentiality that Apple relies on."
Apple and Samsung, in fact, scored just as highly as did Microsoft in three of the four categories, but fell behind in Essentials. "Although Apple is seen as providing products and services 'that meet my needs' and offering 'the highest-quality product/offering,' consumers do not consider Apple to be as essential as Microsoft," Stokes wrote in her report on the survey findings. "Apple was once emotionally essential, but as it loses its emotional hold, it won't be able to win solely on utilitarian qualities."
Microsoft also won out in the demographic battle, said Stokes, with consistently high brand rankings across every age group. Meanwhile, companies like Apple and Samsung scored best in younger age groups, notably with Millennials, those aged 25 to 33.
"Apple is a stronger contender among Millennials, where it's bashing it out for that younger consumer with Samsung," said Stokes in an interview today.
Also in Microsoft's favor was its recent move toward a more coherent brand. Labeled "One Microsoft" by Stokes -- the same name Microsoft used this summer to tag its corporate restructuring -- it had had an impact on consumers by August when the poll was conducted.
"It's too early to say if 'One Microsoft' is a success, but [Microsoft] is headed in the right direction. They haven't had a consistent experience across the brand before," said Stokes.
"Microsoft's performance coincides with a shift from an individual product marketing approach to the seamless 'One Microsoft' communications and user experience," Stokes added in her report.
That drive toward a singular brand, as Stokes hinted, provided some of the boost to Microsoft's score. If the poll had been run before that change, she suspected the Redmond, Wash. company would not have ranked as highly as it did.
"Microsoft clearly learned from Apple on this," Stokes said Wednesday. "[Apple] is at the forefront of this."
Speaking of Apple, Stokes attributed Apple's second-place finish, at least in part, to its struggles over the last 18 months, including a drop in stock price and criticism that it had dulled its innovation edge. "Apple's lost a little bit of its [brand] luster," Stokes contended even as she pointed out that Apple has recently countered with strong emotional brand advertising and the emphasis on luxury, the latter evidenced by the hiring of Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts.
"This is something Samsung should be thinking about, too," said Stokes. "I'm hard pressed to know what the Samsung brand actually stands for."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.