Character: We develop Characters and Story Frameworks for brands.

The road to hell is paved...

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Six weeks ago I added a blog posting entitled Brands that outrun their story, in which I speculated that Starbucks is having a difficult time regaining its footing as a brand precisely because the story on which the brand was built seems to be contradicted by the very size and success of the business.

By the same token Walmart--which was arguably in an even deeper hole than Starbucks three years ago--has done a better job of climbing out of that hole because the Walmart story, at its best, is very congruent with its size and success.

So what about Google? One of our readers asked if we thought that Google was in danger of outrunning its story, which provoked the following thoughts:

On the one hand, the Google brand was built around people's experience of a free service, presenting a clean, non-commercial home page and a funny, playful name. As a business, it had a kids-in-a-dorm-room kind of feel to it: friendly and a little self-deprecating.

On the other hand, the model for the business Google was building is a poster child for the network effect: connect uncountable hordes of people and mine unfathomable streams of information until the resulting flow of cash could sink even the Evil Empire of Microsoft itself.

The conflict, as so often happens, was right in the name. On the surface, Google sounds warm, fuzzy and almost cartoony. At the same time, for engineers with their hands on the controls of the digital economy, the word googol stands for numbers so big the rest of us don't know how to deal with them. The conflict is also acknowledged in the company's informal motto, "Don't be evil." The phrase sounds anti-corporate in a glib, rebellious way, while at the same time clearly referencing the corruption that can accompany great wealth and power.

From a story point of view, the future of Google as a brand depends entirely on what objective is communicated by its actions in the world. In other words, what does the brand want? A brand is like a character in the drama of its category. As a member of the audience watching that drama, I am suspicious of any character whose motive is not clear. If a brand fails to convey a clear and convincing sense of what it wants, then my default assumption must be that the brand is only interested in my money. In that sense, Google's strategic marketing problem is very much like Walmart's. As vast commercial enterprises, both Google and Walmart must communicate a sense of purpose above and beyond making money. Otherwise, they will have an increasingly tough time making money.

From the beginning, Google has done a good job of articulating a larger purpose: to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. The question is, do you believe them? It was easy to buy this as altruism when it seemed like kids in a dorm room playing with geeky algorithms. Now that they are becoming more and more deeply enmeshed with our vital personal information, and the opportunities to exploit that information are so clear, do you still believe they are capable of managing their wealth and power in a way that honors their stated purpose?

I'd love to hear your answers to those questions.



5 Comments

I don’t think they are outrunning their story but I do think Google has a more complicated story and a story that they are in danger of losing control of. But they are still guided by free and open access to info that makes lives better—witness what Maps/Earth is doing, what they are doing with antiquities and museums, visual search, the controversial book project. I also found them, as a customer of theirs, to be patient, and guided by what is right for our business—and being remarkably open as they helped.

The conflict they raise in society is that their mission is better delivered the bigger they get—and we as a society don’t like that. It is still in my mind the world’s most interesting company.

I don't believe Google. "Do no evil" is wimpy and full of too much wiggle room.

They'd have more credibility if it were "do good".

I don't think Google ever was dorm like in reality but it is filled with innovative techy people who are growing new ideas like a healthy global greenhouse - Based solely on what people are doing with it to dictate its success and its value. This is a true future model. For example, Google Earth was quite helpful to humanity in ways that Google itself could not predict, this thrill is one example leading the way to humanitarian corporate design and engagement.

BUT, all humans will abuse and all humans will contribute in positive ways. Soooo, Google will have both.

With a younger generation bent on innovating and shining their skill sets versus gathering loads of McMansions I think we have a better chance to create meaningul product and services.... Some things are more attractive than a greed driven economy.... like shining your skill sets in the creation of and contribution to something evolving.

Ultimately Google IS too useful and too much fun to destroy with greed. There is competition coming their way so they will NOT be dominating the world... other companies are 'getting it' and are starting to work within the new innovation, co-creation frameworks. We are in a turbo charge era regarding this - we will be seeing great change in the next 4-8 months.

From an end-user perspective, I'm totally committed to Google. I don't pay anything to use it, so that in itself makes me less questioning of the service. I love their additional services like Google Reader and Google Scholar, which is an inquisitive mind's dream come true. Are they in a position to exploit info? YES! Do I believe they will abuse it? NO. The stakes for making a misstep like that are too high. There's no recovery from that. Moreover, social media like Facebook and Twitter has made us less shy about sharing personal info. And deep down, I don't think anyone believes that personal information is truly private.

Hi. I just noticed that your blog looks like it has a few code problems at the very top of your site's page. I'm not sure if everybody is getting this same problem when browsing your blog? I am employing a totally different browser than most people, referred to as Opera, so that is what might be causing it? I just wanted to make sure you know. Thanks for posting some great postings and I'll try to return back with a completely different browser to check things out!

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