She is responsible for the world’s most valuable brand, so it is remarkable how often Lorraine Twohill describes Google in terms more befitting a plucky underdog. Speaking to Marketing Week at the Web Summit in Dublin earlier this month, the senior vice-president of marketing refers to the company in various contexts as “cutting its teeth”, “just starting out” and riding a “steep learning curve”.
It is surprising language perhaps from the marketing chief of a behemoth with $60bn (£38bn) annual revenues, but it indicates the speed at which Google is moving into new product and service areas, experimenting with innovative forms of marketing along the way.
Twohill joined Google 11 years ago when it was indeed a plucky underdog in financial terms, focused purely on online search. In her first role with the company as head of marketing for the EMEA region she was one of just 20 people working in a London office to help build Google’s presence outside the US.
Today the company has 50,000 employees in more than 70 worldwide offices and an 80% share of the global search market – 89% in the UK – not to mention a comprehensive suite of digital products ranging from the Chrome browser and Android mobile operating system to Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Google Play and Google+.
“When you’re small and disruptive you’re cool, but when you’re bigger and disruptive you’re not necessarily as cool”
Four years ago the company moved into hardware when it launched the Nexus brand of phones and tablets, while early-stage innovations such as Google Glass and the driverless car have put it at the forefront of ‘the internet of things’. It has even invested, alongside Hollywood director James Cameron, in Planetary Resources, a venture set up with the goal of mining asteroids.
This exponential growth has created an ever-more complex set of marketing challenges for Twohill, who became global head of marketing in 2009 with responsibility for all Google brands. An Irishwoman now based at Google’s California headquarters, she has seen her expenditure grow from $1.98bn (£1.27bn) on sales and marketing five years ago to $7.25bn (£4.61bn) in 2013.
This year alone Google has launched several major advertising campaigns, each with its own distinct objective. The recent global YouTube campaign, for example, was a profile-building exercise for the site’s biggest stars and a bold statement about the video-sharing platform’s power and reach. Advertising for Google Play, meanwhile, has sought to position the online content store as a rival to Apple’s iTunes, while the recently launched Android campaign is the operating system’s first advertising effort. No wonder Twohill says she is “constantly running to catch up” with her burgeoning to-do list.
“The thing about Google is that there’s always way more opportunity, and way more to do, than there ever are hours in the day – no matter how big your team gets or how big a budget you have,” she says.
Twohill manages a huge, interconnected global marketing organisation of brand and country-specific teams. Delegation is naturally a big part of her role.
“There’s always a debate around centralised versus regionalised and local versus global, but I believe that brand heads and country heads need to stand strong [in the same structure],” she says.
Mission 5% accomplished
In addition to these day-to-day concerns Twohill is responsible for helping to articulate Google’s broader identity and role in the world – a considerable task given that the company’s activities have grown far beyond its original function as a search engine. In a recent interview in the Financial Times, Google chief executive Larry Page conceded that the company he and Sergey Brin founded 16 years ago “probably” needs a new mission statement to bring it up to date.
This admission was seized upon up by several commentators, including Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, who suggested that Google has lost focus on its original mission – ‘To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ – and sacrificed consumer affection and loyalty as it has expanded.
Twohill rejects this analysis and believes too much was made of Page’s comments. She argues that Google’s founding principles are as relevant today as they ever were and that the aim of organising the world’s information is still “only about 5% complete”.
“We thought it was funny this got picked up so much because if you listen to Larry through the years, he’s been extremely consistent in terms of how he talks about us,” she says. “From the outset we’ve had a goal around building technology that’s useful and magical for humanity and even though we’ve gone into lots of new things that core DNA at the heart of the company has remained.”
For all the talk about values it is clear that Google’s reputation is an increasingly fragile thing. As the company has grown it has found itself entangled in countless debates about its market power and its use of individuals’ data. In September it was told by the EU to make concessions to rivals such as Microsoft to ward off a fine of up to 10% of global revenue for its dominance of search advertising.
It has also been fined by several national data regulators in the past two years for privacy breaches by its Street View cars, which failed to make themselves identifiable and collected personal information from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.
Then there is the attention Google received for fighting off a US class action lawsuit against Gmail last year by making an argument in court using a judgement that states “people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider]”, and that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties”.
Recent arguments over Google’s UK tax bill and whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the personal data collected by government agencies round off the controversies. In both instances Google says it complies with the relevant laws.
Twohill says the Google board is mindful of such concerns, but adds that “these are complex issues we need to work through”. She insists the company is striving for complete transparency, with Page and other senior executives such as chief legal officer David Drummond frequent contributors to media debates around online privacy and surveillance.
Despite these problematic issues Twohill claims Google has succeeded in retaining consumers’ trust in its products and its central role in their lives.
“It’s resilient because we’ve deposited a lot in that brand bank account over the years,” she says. “For any brand when you hit bumpy patches, if you’ve really invested in the brand and in the relationship over the years you can weather those times. It’s also about how you react as a brand so we’re being very thoughtful around these issues and how we talk about them.”
Millward Brown’s 2014 BrandZ ranking of the world’s most valuable brands attests to this resilience, with Google climbing above Apple to reclaim the top spot for the first time in four years. The report suggests that Google’s brand value of $159bn (£101bn), up 40 per cent on last year, is a vindication of the company’s strategy of expanding into new product areas and claiming a growing “share” of consumers’ lives.
Twohill can take a fair amount of the credit for this. She notes that when she joined Google there was no need to advertise because the company’s only product – its search engine – was already well-known and widely used. The huge amount of early press attention on Google, with its Silicon Valley background and free-thinking corporate culture, also helped propel the brand forward.
Huge rise in ad spend
However, Twohill argues that it was impossible for Google to rely on PR as its sole form of communication forever, hence the huge increase in its advertising spend in recent years.
“When you’re small and disruptive you’re cool, but when you’re bigger and disruptive you’re not necessarily as cool,” she says. “We felt the need to get out there and talk more about ourselves, particularly as we have launched a lot of products into competitive spaces. We needed to tell people about them and get them excited about those products.”
Last month saw the launch of Android’s ‘Be together. Not the same’ campaign. It aims to give the mobile operating system, used by a diverse range of device makers, a more cohesive brand identity and a competitive edge over its biggest rival, Apple’s iOS. Similarly, this year’s Google Play campaign is an attempt to claw market share from iTunes.
It is on the topic of Google’s fledgling hardware business, though, that Twohill is most inclined to use underdog terminology. The company is working with Dixons Carphone in the UK to set up areas within stores to showcase Google products such as the Nexus range of phones and tablets, Chromecast media player or Nest thermostat. While Twohill intends to set up more of these retail partnerships globally, she says there are no plans to establish standalone Google stores akin to the Apple estate of retail outlets.
“We’re kids at the adults’ table in some ways, but we’re getting there”
“I’ve had to think a lot about how the Google brand should appear in the physical world,” she confirms. “We’ve set up a retail team looking at how we can put Google in stores in a way that doesn’t compromise the brand. It’s been a big learning curve for us and I still feel like we’re kids at the adults’ table in some ways, but we’re getting there.”
Alongside its move into new product areas Google continues to experiment in its marketing mix. Twohill says the company is coming to realise the potential of outdoor digital screens, for example, which it is using on a large scale for the Android campaign.
“I’m convinced that all outdoor will be digital in the next few years and that all of that will be [bought through programmatic auctions],” she adds. “I’m really excited about the physical and digital worlds coming together.”
Twohill has set a target for Google to spend 60% of its digital budget through programmatic channels, placing ads in real time according to the audience they reach – although she believes the ad tech industry has a long way to go before it perfects the model, with programmatic not yet supportive of all ad formats.
“My dream is to have a cockpit where I can access all the great creative and stories I want to tell and put them seamlessly and automatically onto every screen – whether it’s a huge outdoor screen or a tiny smartwatch,” she says. “The right content delivered at the right time, right place, right price and to the right person. That’s where we need to get to and we’re nowhere near at the moment.”
A marketing graduate of Dublin City University, Twohill had shown an aptitude for building digital brands long before she joined Google. One of her early roles involved working for the Irish government to develop what became an award-winning tourism website. She later joined online travel agency Opodo, where she realised the potential of search marketing and began to forge contacts with the wunderkinder at Google, which was then only a few years old. She became Google’s first marketing hire outside the US when she was invited to join the EMEA business in 2003.
After six years in this role and a further five as global head of marketing Twohill was given the global SVP title earlier this year. She says that nothing is different about her duties as a result: the title is an internal promotion but her day job – and the frantic pace that accompanies it – has not changed.
“Google is a complex place with complex challenges and problems,” she says. “But there’s also a real joy in representing a company where you know the substance stacks up and where there’s a great sense of purpose and intent.”
Lorraine Twohill on…
Articulating Google’s values
We’ve always believed in ‘show, don’t tell’ so I don’t think the right thing for us to do would be a big marketing campaign saying ‘We’re Google, let us explain Google to you’. It should just come through in what we offer you as a company. We’re humble and think that if we start to tell you what you should think of us or what you should know, that crosses a line we don’t think we should cross.
We’ll try anything that works. That’s my job – I have to make sure that I know all my options so we’ll do everything from the most traditional to the craziest, newest thing possible. We’re a data-led company so we do a lot of modelling around media mix and what works – for our advertisers and clients, but also for my own team.
As a brand that is largely software inside devices, to appear more human and make people feel something for you is important. You need to tell a story and that comes through best in video. All our work goes on YouTube first – we use YouTube as a test-bed for creative and then we bring some of that to TV.
Claiming the BrandZ title of most valuable brand 2014
The awards I care most about are to do with user trust. From the beginning with Google Search the contract with the user was based on a great deal of trust: the user trusted Google to give them the right information when they needed it. That’s still what I care most about – do people believe we’re going to be there for them when they need us?
The best marketing is all about good judgement and making the right decisions around the brand – what you choose to do, where you choose to appear and what you say yes to versus what you say no to. Smart decisions get you to a good place, which is what we’ve seen happen in general with our brand.