Google on its mission to keep a million businesses open in 2021

Google wants to start a national conversation about the British public’s love for all things local, as it looks to revive the UK high street and tap into trends within wider culture.

Jimmy Doherty Channel 4 Google
Broadcaster Jimmy Doherty getting tips from his local fishmonger as part of Google’s tie-up with Channel 4 on Dear Local.

Google’s most recent campaign ‘Dear Local’ is a love letter to the small businesses and independent traders who create the distinctive character of a neighbourhood, away from the soulless experience of the homogenous high street.

The campaign came about after Google’s ads UK marketing director, Nishma Robb, and her team began poring over search behaviour and picked out a notable shift towards localism. Prompted in part by the limitations of lockdown, this shift to local has been in the air for while, pre-dating the pandemic and in many ways a backlash against modern mainstream retail.

“It’s about consumer behaviour and being more engaged, more invested in your local community,” says Robb. “There was this concern about these small local companies, about if they could continue to exist. We’ve pledged to keep a million businesses open by the end of 2021.”

To that end, Google has made a commitment to training and mentoring, helping smaller businesses change at pace by helping to enhance their visibility.

“Nearly a third of SMBs [small and medium-sized businesses] in the UK don’t have a website or online presence, and 70% of those have never given any thought to how they need to engage,” Robb explains.

There’s a responsibility to show layers and corners of our society that can so easily be overlooked and that will build more authenticity for a brand .

Nishma Robb, Google

The tech giant has had a free training programme in place for five years now, set up specifically to assist companies pivoting to a digital environment. Robb talks of a target of helping 10,000 people by the end of next year, guiding them through things like analytics, social and click-and-collect.

“The other thing that we launched was a free mentoring service. It’s all well and good having the training and the tools, but sometimes you need that handholding approach, to spend 20 or 30 minutes on the phone with somebody on the other end who can help you through a process,” she adds.

“It’s promoting a sense of community among these business owners. A lot of them are lonely. They’re not part of big organisations, so we give them that additional support.”

Talking to both consumers and businesses revealed that for many local companies the best way to show support was by leaving a review and letting other people in on the secret about a favourite neighbourhood deli or painter and decorator.

“That’s what we really leaned into as part of the storytelling, this idea of consumer love for their local area, of people wanting to champion the places that they loved,” Robb adds.

“We wanted to create a national conversation around sharing this love for local businesses, using credible characters like Anthony Joshua and Sheridan Smith to demonstrate the connection we have with our local communities.”

Joshua got the idea of the campaign straight away and came up with a long list of places from his corner of north London he wanted to give a shout-out to. Robb says she’s already had other personalities keen to come on board.

This feels like a big moment for Google, a time when a brand synonymous with the online world is positioning itself as a force for change in the physical one.

Robb agrees: “Rather than being seen as something that was distracting, actually technology has been demonstrating its added benefit to the physical world. We still want to go to shops and we still invest in them in our community area, but actually technology has a role to play, in terms of whether it’s discovering them or helping them adapt.”

Tapping into culture

Beyond the usual metrics, success has been measured by levels of engagement. There have already been parodies of the Joshua ad (always a sign of doing something right) and, judging by search trends and hash-tagged social exchanges, Robb’s hopes for starting a country-wide conversation are being realised.

The campaign has dovetailed with wider discussions around social inequality and injustice. Earlier in the summer, Robb came across the work of London musician Swiss, a former member of rap collective So Solid Crew, who took inspiration from events over in the US and set up a movement called Black Pound Day.

Every first Saturday of the month, consumers are encouraged to shop at black-owned businesses, as well as help startups gain funding or individuals find jobs. Google has been helping with media coverage, most recently partnering on a gift guide in London listings magazine Time Out. Robb enjoys being able to react to a social or business development that can be folded into a larger marketing strategy.

“This year has taught us how crucial agility is. It’s trying to be responsive and dynamic, both in terms of the story you need to tell, tonally, but also having an agility around where and how you tell the story,” she says.

“It allows us to tap into what’s happening and gives us a sense of purpose, whether that’s supporting your local business, or making a choice about where to spend your money.”

Our strategies and campaigns will be more reflective of the UK, not too London-centric.

Nishma Robb, Google

Robb mulls over the best way to represent these choices and whether they’re based around, for instance, sustainability or equality. Reflecting that purpose in an authentic way is key.

“Do you represent reality, or do you try and inspire future behaviour?” she asks. “I think there’s a responsibility to show layers and corners of our society that can so easily be overlooked and that will build more authenticity for a brand when they’re trying to tell that story.”

Talking about Google specifically, Robb is optimistic that progress is being made when it comes to greater representation among staff from diverse backgrounds.

“We made a whole set of commitments and planned targets around what we wanted to do, everything from looking at leadership representation and hiring and retention, to looking at making people at leadership level more accountable and responsible,” she explains.

“At the heart of it, Google is a product for everyone, so we need to ensure that everyone is represented. We’ve gone much further to look at things like not playing to stereotypes, representation not just in front of the camera, but behind it, and then challenging our agencies and partners.”

And the industry as a whole? “I would say that progress has been frustratingly slow, but I can see a greater commitment across the board, a commitment to change,” notes Robb.

“There are targets rather than just words and programmes, there are activities that address the issue. You see it more and more in the work and that’s great, but we’ve still got a way to go. You see that in things like the backlash that Sainsbury’s suffered.”

Google on diversity: We have been well-intentioned, but we can do more

Google faces other challenges next year, not least UK government regulations that will form part of a statutory code of conduct demanding more transparency from tech platforms, particularly when it comes to services and use of consumer data.

“We completely support the approach that benefits people, businesses and society, so that everyone can make the most of the internet. That’s always been at the heart of our mission, so if that requires regulation then, absolutely, if it’s genuinely for the benefit,” Robb says.

“There are three things in my mind that really drive that. One is around skills and investing in training. Helping as many people in the UK to be ready for the jobs of the future, making sure that the recovery and the onward journey that we go on is fair for all. It’s also about tools, providing apps and platforms to help businesses digitise and recover faster. Then finally there’s rules, working with governments so they can update policy. It’s how we work in partnership to make sure that it’s right for everyone.”

One thing Robb is certain of is that localism is here to stay and, looking forward, is hopeful that Google can continue to position itself as a tool and mentor for independent businesses.

“Our strategies and campaigns will be more reflective of the UK, not too London-centric,” she says.

“The role of technology in people’s lives is so fascinating and I hope very much that the work we do will be around that helpfulness and sense of empowerment. We’ve learnt to be resilient, to be flexible, to listen more and those are things that will play a very big role in whatever we do in our work next year.”