Mark Ritson: Google needs to search for new brand values

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Google is looking to reposition itself. That was the key takeaway from an interview the company’s co-founder and chief executive Larry Page gave to the Financial Times last week.

Ritson featured image

Asked whether Google needed a new mission statement, Page was characteristically open: “I think we do, probably.” But when challenged as to what that new mission should be, Page was more opaque: “We’re still trying to work that out.”

The problem for Page and his team is twofold. First, Google’s mission statement – ‘To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ – is more than a decade old. In the fast-moving world of digital innovation, that’s an aeon ago.

The brand might have begun with information access as its founding vision but Google’s enormous wealth, combined with incessant intellectual curiosity and a rabidly acquisitive corporate strategy has seen it stray far and wide from its founding mission. These days, Google is a cartographer, media agency, digital TV station, space exploration firm, designer of driverless cars and much more. Clearly, little of this fits a company with a mission associated with making information accessible.

The second problem is that, for all its success, Google has been wildly inconsistent as a brand and this has restricted the degree of affection and loyalty it enjoys with customers. Along with its outdated mission statement, Google positions itself using a ‘philosophy’ of 10 guiding principles. A glance at these confirms that Google has been repeatedly and egregiously contradictory to the rules it was meant to follow.

Principle 2 states: ‘It’s best to do one thing really, really well’. This suggests that focusing on speciality is what Google is all about. But how does that sit with the company’s wide array of acquisitions and extensions?

In the FT interview, Page recalls his chats with Steve Jobs in which the infamously focused Apple founder would berate Google for its overly diversified product development. “He would always tell me, you’re doing too much stuff,” Page says. “I’d be like, you’re not doing enough.” But Jobs had a good point and it’s particularly pertinent given how Google set out to grow in its founding philosophy.

But the contradictions do not end there. Principle 4 states that ‘Democracy on the web works’ but Google was content to enter China with a search engine that was allegedly secretly manipulated by the government to control what citizens retrieved from search requests. Principle 5 claims ‘You can make money without doing evil’ but Google has been censured by the EU and other governments for collecting people’s Wi-Fi data as part of its Street View project.

And how about Principle 6 and the belief that ‘The need for information crosses all borders’ in light of Julian Assange’s new and as-yet-unproven claims that Google and the US government are in league with each other at a significant cost to other nations?

The reality is that Page is suffering from what all big brands must endure when they define their brand with too many words – inconsistency. The great paradox of corporate branding is that the more words you use, the less traction any of it has with behaviours and brand equity. Every Tom, Dick and useless Harriet from the world of brand consulting tries to sell companies a ‘brand purpose’, with ‘brand values’ allayed with ‘brand attributes’ and other associated horseshit arranged inside concentric circles because a) they don’t know any better and b) they’re getting paid by the yard.

The best-run brands, and Google is one, realise that it doesn’t matter what you call the positioning concept, but it had better be super tight and have influence over how the firm behaves.

It’s ironic that a company that built its success on a sparse home page is now floundering from loquaciousness. Time for Google to sit down and define what it really wants to stand for and then – and this is the difficult bit – actually follow that prescription from now on. Let the search begin.

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Comments
  • michaelsmith123 5 Nov 2014 at 11:46 am

    In case anyone is wondering loquacious is an adjective defined as “talking or tending to talk much or freely; talkative; chattering; babbling; garrulous”

  • Al King 7 Nov 2014 at 9:44 am

    I’d go with “Google: Knowledge is Power.”

  • Adam Joseph 13 Nov 2014 at 11:09 am

    Google could go with something very ‘Kalifornian’, like “Helping Humanity Evolve” or “Rewiring Human Brains”.

  • Sparks 3 Dec 2014 at 9:17 am

    Great article Mark.

    What is it that Einstein is attributed as saying? “Any fool can make something bigger and more complex.”

    A much better response to information overload is to simplify, well. Think of the ‘eat five a day’ campaign. There are no vitamin levels to calculate, or percentages to work out. Just a memorable concept that nudges us all to eat more fruit and veg.

    Google need to take a leaf out of Carlos Brito’s book “…understand the market out there — which is very complicated — and then translate that into two, three, maybe five actions that everybody can do.”

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