I want to use Google+. I want my colleagues and clients and you to use it as well. I think it has the potential to be a major catalyst for business networking. If it succeeds, it could carve out a very lucrative space for itself positioning LinkedIn more squarely as a recruitment tool and Facebook as a socializing tool. But there is one thing stopping me from jumping into Google+ with both feet. It’s not the coding or the functionality or the interface. It’s the Google brand.
Last year, Google earned 37 billion U.S. dollars. That’s more money than the GDP of most countries. So how could I suggest that their brand is deficient? Despite their many technical achievements, you don’t need an algorithm to see that although Google is #1 in search, it doesn’t rank very high in brand management. Specific deficiencies include an annoying habit of ignoring the value requirements of their target, assuming that an interface suited to a PhD at the Googleplex will make perfect sense to a housewife in Peoria, and overextending their product portfolio. Too often, this cocktail of branding blunders results in underwhelming market uptake and subsequent abandonment of the product. Will Google+ be next?
This question occurred to me on April 9 when I noticed Google’s logo was truant. Of course, it wasn’t the first time. They have, quite literally, turned logo obfuscation into an art form. The Google Doodles page displays a gallery of the different ways they conceal their brand in secret visual coding. For instance, on April 9, you may have been too busy celebrating Eadweard J. Muybridge's 182nd birthday to notice, but the folks in Mountain View paid tribute to the nineteenth-century animal motion-study photographer by replacing their logo with 15 tiny horses in boxes. Yes, this is a fun little game for the calenderati, but it struck me as a beacon of brand hubris: Toying with the laws of brand physics as if their search success had earned them immunity.
But messing with their logo is the least of Google’s brand infractions. More disconcerting is their detachment from the people they aspire to sell to. Remember Google TV? Of course you don’t. It was too complicated for any of us to figure out. I think Nilay Patel put it best in her review for Engadget: “Google TV feels like an incomplete jumble of good ideas only half-realized, an unoptimized box of possibility that suffers under the weight of its own ambition and seemingly rushed holiday deadline.” That’s a textbook example of what you get when you put a bunch of technical brainiacs in a room without proper marketing leadership. As David Pogue commented in The New York Times in his article titled “Google TV, Usability Not Included,” “This much is clear: Google TV may be interesting to technophiles, but it's not for average people.”
In 1998, Google introduced the general public to the idea of a “beta-launch.” Up to this point, most companies went to great pains to ensure that their products were free from defects before introducing them to the public. This was done to protect their brand. In Google’s case, the public was asked to find flaws and help fix them. Great for something as innocuous as an experimental search engine. Not so great for other endeavors, such as last year’s release of a real-world payment system riddled with security flaws. Like many Google initiatives, Google Wallet is a great idea that is floundering in the market and eroding the brand’s non-search credibility. Its precursor, Google Checkout, was launched back in 2006 to rival PayPal for online purchases. It never made a dent in PayPal’s business. One reason was that despite protests from users, it was launched with no effective means of customer support (unless you considered crowdsourcing your gripes in a forum as effective customer support). Given the category they were entering, that’s just being dumb or half-assed. I have to assume it’s the latter based on the amount of press Google receives for its elite brain trust. From the outside, it seems that at Google failure is always an option. Not a very inspiring brand promise.
Then there is brand focus. Jack Trout and Al Reis have been warning us of the dangers of line extension since the 1970s. When a brand becomes successful in one category, they advise not to milk it by slapping the same brand on products from other categories. Instead, they suggest creating new brands with their own category-specific associations. Google is doing just the opposite. To date, Google has launched or acquired a staggering 216 different products. Granted, some of these product extensions are legit by Trout and Reis’ standards, like the 29 search-related products or mobile versions of desktop products. But many others like Google Wallet, Music, and Sketch-Up are certainly in dairy land when it comes to milking brands. The Google-owned Picasa and Blogger brands will soon be retired and replaced with Google Photos and Google Blogs. Android Market, which sells both games and business apps, has been switched to Google Play. We can expect more products to be re-branded as part of an initiative to unify its brand on its foray into social media.
And will Google+ still be here two or three years from now? The Google brand graveyard has 63 tombstones with four more holes freshly dug. At its current rate of failure, about one of every three products Google launches will fail badly enough to warrant decommissioning. Many more brands will fail to gain traction but will continue to languish online. A lot of these products will be well conceived and coded but never properly positioned or promoted. The idea of nonchalantly tossing hundreds of products out on the web then stepping back to see what sticks seems more like recreation for techies than marketing. This has hurt Google+. I suspect many people signed up for Google+ from the hype but failed to commit to the platform because Google never managed to explain the benefit of doing so. That job is left to us, the brand and communication consultants. But even if we succeed, clients still hold back because they feel there is a good chance it won’t be adequately supported by Google and will be abandoned like other toys they grew weary of.
That’s hard to argue with.
For now, Google can afford to play around with every shiny product that captures its attention. I guess they have earned the right to do so. But for many of us, the products Google asks us to invest time with, like Google+, have very real consequences for our productivity and livelihoods. Given their track record, they shouldn’t be surprised if we are increasingly reluctant to climb in the sandbox and play with them. That’s brand erosion and something that even Google cannot afford right now. For a social platform like Google+ to be useful, large chunks of society will have to go beyond simply registering. The platform needs people to really believe in and embrace the brand. But Google has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to win over the public outside what many consider to be its core competence: search algorithms.
I will continue to cajole friends and colleagues to join me on Google+. But I’d sure appreciate some help. Google’s faith in letting the crowd sort things out for itself is admirable in a way. But Google can’t crowdsource credibility in social media. To earn that, Google will need to add a new type of intellect to its brain trust: street smarts.
P.S. If you would like to meet on Google+, you can find me here: Sean Duffy on Google+.
Sean Duffy spent 18 years with ad agencies in Boston, San Francisco, Copenhagen, and Stockholm before founding The Duffy Agency, an international ad agency, in 2001. Sean is director of TAAN Europe and a regular guest lecturer at the Lund University School of Economics. He is also a blogger, Twitterer and is on LinkedIn.