free html hit counter On Google's Brand | John Battelle's Search Blog

On Google's Brand

By - April 22, 2010

all Goog Products.png

Yesterday a reporter from Cnet called and asked me a few provocative questions. He was writing a piece on Google as a marketer, and wanted my point of view. I’m not sure when his piece is coming out (or if my thoughts will be included), but our conversation helped me crystalize my thinking around Google and its brand, so I figured I best get it written down.  

Regular readers may recall one this prediction for 2010:

Google will make a corporate decision to become seen as a software brand rather than as “just a search engine.” I see this as a massive cultural shift that will cause significant rifts inside the company, but I also see it as inevitable. Google, once the “pencil” of the Internet, has become a newer, more open version of Microsoft, and it has to admit as much both to itself as well as to its public, or it will start to lose credibility with all its constituents. While the company flirted with the title of “media company” I think “software company” fits it better, and allows it to focus and to lean into its most significant projects, all of which are software-driven: Chrome OS, Android, Search, and Docs (Office/Cloud Apps).

The reporter’s question let me unpack this a bit. He asked me why Google isn’t doing a major brand campaign, given that most other large Internet-driven companies have – including eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, and Apple.

A few years ago, I might have answered thusly: Google doesn’t need to do brand advertising, because Google’s service *is* the brand builder. But today, my answer is quite different: Google isn’t doing brand advertising because Google doesn’t know what its brand means.

And you can’t do brand advertising if you can’t say what the brand means.

Think about that for a second. Up until a few years ago, it was quite simple to say what the Google brand meant. Put simply, Google = Search. Or, to add a few words, Google = The Best Search Service On Earth.

Now, is that true today?

Well, certainly you could argue that Google still means a great search environment. But the brand also means far more. It’s the brand which stands in opposition to the iPhone – the Android Pepsi to Apple’s Coke. The same is true in the office suite – Google Docs are the Pepsi to the Coke of Microsoft’s Office. Google Chrome? The Pepsi to Internet Explorer’s Coke. And there’s a ton more – photo sharing, blogging platforms, social networking, ecommerce solutions, enterprise platforms, media (YouTube, Knol, etc.)….well you get the picture.

And Google = Search doesn’t cover all that. Nor, honestly, does the company’s corporate mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” You could shoehorn the Nexus One into that mission, but it’s not a comfortable fit.

Until Google figures out what its brand means in a post search world, it won’t be doing any brand advertising. And given who its competing with – Apple, Hulu, Microsoft and Amazon, among many others – I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

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22 thoughts on “On Google's Brand

  1. Chris Grams says:

    John–

    I agree with you, Google needs to do some soul searching for their brand meaning… Take on look at their listing on the Brand Tags site ( http://www.brandtags.net ), my favorite resource for seeing what the public thinks a brand means. The biggest words in Google’s tag cloud?

    awesome
    big brother
    cool
    evil
    fast
    find
    fun
    god
    information
    internet
    search
    smart
    useful

    and, finally, one of the biggest words in the tag cloud, the one that tells me about a) their opportunity and b) their need for better brand positioning

    everything

  2. Don says:

    John, Interesting post. You inspired me to write “Focus or Fail, Saying No To Great Ideas”. http://bit.ly/9CT7Lf

    Focus is critically important to startups and large companies. Focus requires saying no to some great ideas. Having lots of smart people and lots of money in the bank can make it hard to say no. I was mentoring a startup, helping them sort through where to focus and how to prioritize the opportunities. I told them to choose their customers carefully. Huh? That’s right, choose your customers carefully, and choose what you build / productize even more carefully.

    Steve Jobs did an interview with BusinessWeek back in 2004 that emphasizes the importance of focus. He said “there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together. Otherwise, you can get great pieces of technology all floating around the universe. But it doesn’t add up to much. That’s what was missing at Apple for a while.”

    It happened at Yahoo too. Remember Brad Garlinghouse’s Peanut Butter Manifesto?

    It happens at startups and at big companies. Each has to say no to some great ideas in order to focus. More at http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2010/04/focus-or-fail-saying-no-to-great-ideas.html

    Don Dodge

  3. thehalvo says:

    Thanks for the great article. It’s true: “Google isn’t doing brand advertising because Google doesn’t know what its brand means”

    I was doing some research on google the other week and ran into their mission statement by accident. I was a little taken back when I first read it because it reminded me of a teenager in identity crisis.

    Thanks again for the great write up.

  4. Thank you. A very thought-provoking post.
    As a close observer of Google, I agree with one of your commenters that Google aspires to be all things to all people on the internet — a type of Omni-information service.
    Google itself has waffled around concerning its identity — from being considered a search company, a technology company, an advertising company, a distribution company, while pretty consistently claiming it does not want to be considered a content/media company (even while it considered buying the New York Times).
    Most interesting and telling is how the Department of Justice effectively “branded” what Google does in its court filings objecting to the Google Book Settlement. Apparently, DOJ sees Google as an “information distributor.”
    My vote is their money making business brand is as an “information broker.”
    Unfortunately, for Google, as it dithers doing “everything” the brand that is most likely to stick long term is “Monopolist.”
    Respectfully, Scott Cleland, Precursor LLC, Chairman NetCompetition.org, and Publisher of GoogleMonitor.com and Googleopoly.net.

  5. The opening screenshot is highly illustrative of your points.

  6. Antonis says:

    I think Google really knows what they want to do. And they are really clear on it. They want to take over the internet world …in every sense. Focus in telephones, software, search. Be like you said a newer better version of microsoft.

    i believe after they realese the Android OS for pc’s then they will be ready to tell everyone exactly what there brand means.

    will see.. :)

  7. I just saw a snippet on NBC about Google reinforcing their global brand in a green way… They replaced their grass mowing crew with goats. Sounds good in theroy, but careful where you step there guys. eh?

  8. Rick B says:

    Software?!

    Google marks the end of software. Of that list of products in the screen shot, only a couple, like Google Earth, involve code that a user runs locally. Google is about more, even, than Apple’s evolutionary stage of turning software into Apps.

    Google’s ad, Parisian Love, while explicitly branding Search (“Search On”), is more about the breadth, depth and amazing growth of the online side of our lives.

    I haven’t really followed any of the Google executive’s statements of vision, and I haven’t yet read The Search (blushes) but to me the brand represents my experience (personal), plugged in (network + social) and equipped (tools) to do stuff (results), that gets better and cooler (innovation) every day.

    Of course, that’s aspirational, as brands tend to be.

  9. fibercement says:

    I agree Rick.Thanks.

  10. PixSync photography makes use of many google apps. I think it is very useful and our company has benefitted alot from it.

  11. Del says:

    In some ways google understands what it is doing. However it is many things to many people and several things to different people.

    Note the logo changes sending different subliminal messages and also note as you (John) have said the different applications to improve information retrieval.

    In my view google sees itself as serving many interests and does not wish to alienate any of those interests except when the intention is to ensure its credibility in information retrieval. I also think google believes there are several information types and it wishes to be the only or main point of retrieving such information. Introduction of other applications it seems merely support that single purpose.

    What seems to be detraction from these are its collaborative applications, because once in this area the business can no longer determine the brand and its attributes alone. By inference it needs to leave the door open to the ambiguity of what the brand is provided there are shared universal attributes between google as a company and those that use any of its applications and services whether in their personal or business lives.

    In any event, I am not so sure it needs to decide that now. What they need to decide is the direction the company wishes to take and communicate that effectually.

  12. Despite the ever evolving web and development under the Google brand and the branches and paths it expands down, I feel there is still an incredible about of web users that only see the Google brand as “search” still.

    I have many friends/acquaintances of the younger generation (

    It’s probably more so a UK thing than the US I imagine.

    Incidentally John, that screenshot included in this article, how did you get all Google’s products to display in one group like that? If I select the ‘More Products’ from my Google account, only a handful show… Even if they are apps/services that I am signed up to and use regularly.

    Thanks

  13. JG says:

    Whatever happened to the 70/20/10 rule? Is Google still focused 70% on search, 20% on secondary apps like Gmail and Android and Chrome and Docs and Talk and Horoscopes, and 10% on blue sky projects?

    It seems like that 20% has grown to be much larger. Much, much larger.

  14. Aussiewebmaster says:

    I would not call Android the Pepsi to Apple’s Coke more like the RC Cola – Blackberry really is still the Coke.

    Google Docs is if anything the Shasta.

  15. Kirill says:

    Thank you very much John. I was in Stanford in 1994 in computer lab, and was one of the 1st who tested yahoo those days there. Now a days i am living in Russia, and reading last months your blog, thank you very much, good work, keep doing well.

    About your article, from one side you are 100% right, from another – it’s not really true.

    Brand advertising campaign is about communications and delivering your ‘message’. And it’s all about marketing. create relation you need to be created.

    Google from the beginning, and you know it’s perfectly was more about PR but not Advertising , is not it ?

    You can not do PR campaign without brand values, and vision.

    My personal opinion is: If you 100% sure about your future, go with Advertising, if you are looking around, go with PR, get BETTER feedback from the market, FEEL it.

    So Google was and still in big attention in delivering they values to they customers, but with PR instruments, not Advertising, and my opinion for near future it’s correct.

  16. Simon X says:

    Some interesting thoughts.

    In terms of branding, yes it may not be as specific as you would like, but that’s likely to be intentional.

    In terms of company objective, I see Google as being extremely focused – it’s all about search, or more specifically, relevance.

    Every single product in that screenshot is all about either collecting information or serving relevant information. The former always feeding into the algorithms used in the latter.

    All their apps provide them with a better understanding of your browsing habits, your interests, what you find relevant and what you do not.

    As they often state themselves, they are really good at “relevance problems”. They work hard to stay ahead of the game, by collecting information, as well as giving you the ability and incentive to provide information.

    Nothing it the product list looks superfluous. It would be very naive to think that Google simply goes for “cool technologies”.

  17. Sam Hossain says:

    Google = Information/data

    That’s ALL they want and that’s ALL they are about.

  18. Arnold says:

    John

    Great post and thanks for your perspective on this.

    Since F8, the question of where Google goes next seems more pertinent.

    What is clear is that Google, for all its genius, its core part of our lives, just doesn’t get ‘social’. And this has drawn a huge question mark over whether they can play a leadership role in ‘real-time’ (ala Twitter) or more importantly ‘social and community search’ at all.

    With Facebook exporting recommendation engines fueled by 500,000 million+ points of personal ‘like’ data, and setting up the lines to challenge search, where is Google in all of this?

    And if Google can’t answer that or act the answer to that, certainly brand advertising is a premature action on their part.

  19. Arnold says:

    John

    Great post and thanks for your perspective on this.

    Since F8, the question of where Google goes next seems more pertinent.

    What is clear is that Google, for all its genius, its core part of our lives, just doesn’t get ‘social’. And this has drawn a huge question mark over whether they can play a leadership role in ‘real-time’ (ala Twitter) or more importantly ‘social and community search’ at all.

    With Facebook exporting recommendation engines fueled by 500,000 million+ points of personal ‘like’ data, and setting up the lines to challenge search, where is Google in all of this?

    And if Google can’t answer that or act the answer to that, certainly brand advertising is a premature action on their part.

  20. For years marketing has intoned the value of branding. And for the last few decades, they appear to have been right. But as we’ve moved out of the one-to-many broadcast media ideology and into the interactive, customers-are-co-creators, many-to-many mindset, things have changed. Brand is up for grabs. Who you are as a company is now being defined by who your customers say you are.

    I imagine that Google knows this. It’s unlikely that they’re going to lose their search engine dominance for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, business history has repeatedly shown that corporate dominance today does not translate to corporate dominance tomorrow. Consequently, the present muddiness of their branding will most probably turn out to be somewhat inconsequential. What matters is that right now they’re part of the public dialogue. They’re a verb. Verbs are what you want your company to be: growing, active, dynamic, part of the conversation.

    Moreover, it’s exactly their current corporate dominance that allows them to try out all of these alternative identities. Why should they declare themselves one thing? To whom would they be declaring this? Do end-users really care that Google has branched out from search to software? I’d say that the cost of these items (free) renders that need unnecessary. Wouldn’t declaring media-domination (their apparent goal) as their branding message prove to be *more* intimidating to the public than presenting themselves as a series of scattered brands—brands that don’t need to be linked in the minds of the consumers in order to be effective?

    It’s really quite savvy of Google to try out these different projects: small things fail less hard. And failure is as important as success in such a massive company. So while I’m one of the public who laugh at the length of their beta testing, I know when a product comes out of beta that Google is going to be behind it. In the interim, I get to acquaint myself with a part of Google that isn’t predefined for me as the user, that isn’t laden down with branding and identity. As a user I get to help define my experience. This is Google’s ace in the hole.

    Whether or not Google will eventually divide itself up and spin off parts, only time will tell. But in the meantime, you, I, and all the millions of other beta-testers are helping to define who Google is.

  21. Powerful post and I enjoyed reading your blog.

     

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