Archive for February, 2010

For Google, it’s brand trust or bust

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Can the Google brand be trusted with one’s personal information? That’s becoming the central question as Google continues to struggle with privacy and customer service issues, exemplified by the initial uproar and continuing controversy over Google Buzz. Every passing day seems to raise more questions about Google’s ability to be a brand of trust. A privacy group has demanded an FTC investigation. A number of usability issues don’t make matters any easier for Google.

Google quickly apologized for its privacy transgressions, then implemented rapid fixes to help allay privacy concerns. That’s commendable. Repairing damage to the Google brand will take longer.

Brand trust or bust

For Google, earning brand trust is much more than a “customer relations” problem. Earning brand trust is now Google’s central challenge as a business. For Google, it’s brand trust or bust. Without customer trust in the Google brand, Google’s desire to be an all-encompassing provider of social media services, rolling up Facebook + Twitter + AOL + Windows  + Apple + Everything Else will be difficult—if not impossible—to achieve. People might use individual Google components—Gmail and Docs, or Google Reader, for example—but hesitate at the all-Google immersion. They will certainly push back if they feel railroaded into a one-sided relationship, as happened with Google Buzz.

Google must succeed as an platform of trust before it can succeed as a platform of social media.

You can’t toss your brand on the wall to see if it sticks

The disaster of the Google Buzz launch teaches Google a vital brand lesson. You can’t toss your brand on the wall to see if it sticks. At Google you can quickly develop a new web product and throw it against the wall to see if it sticks. If it fails to stick you can still get a pass. But things are different with brands. Customers are in the mix; live testing on customers isn’t. If you throw your brand on the wall and it fails to stick, your ass is grass.

Google’s business model can undermine its brand

Smart companies align their business model with their brand. It’s brand first, business model second. If Google follows a restrictive business model to capture, contain and control customers in order to harvest and monetize their information, the business model puts the Google brand at a competitive disadvantage. That’s because the essence of a brand is how a company approaches its customers. If the approach is primarily one of customer predation, the brand is condemned to be a shallow cloak or misdirection, diverting attention from reality. This approach wastes the strategic advantage of brands in advancing customers and co-creating value with them. Ultimately, the  “capture, contain and control” business model creates the conditions  for brand disruption from a new market entrant. It leaves too many customer gaps to be a sustainable strategy.

Google’s point of brand reckoning

Every company eventually reaches a point of brand reckoning, where its brand decides its fate. This can be a sobering moment, often at a time of profound crisis. Does the company intend to manipulate and contain its customers, or does it intend to raise them to new levels of being and doing, with freedoms to match? What’s the brand agenda? That’s the fundamental question. Google has now reached its point of brand reckoning. Where is it taking its customers? What kinds of customer growth does the Google brand offer? What new freedoms and opportunities? How are these qualitatively better than what Facebook, Twitter and other provide? What’s the Google brand journey?

In a proactive brand scenario, Google and its customers are on the same page, writing it together. Google does not dictate the script. It does not “write its customers in.” It does not try to script the customer experience.

Google as a brand of privacy

As I’ve argued before, “Protecting privacy confers strategic advantage.” This is certainly true in Google’s case. Radical as it may seem, Google’s best strategy going forward is to become the leading brand of privacy. A Google brand of privacy can solve existing problems of brand trust—and preempt future ones—at the source. A Google that leads in privacy can create sustainable platforms of trust that leverage innovative platforms of technology in ways that Facebook and Twitter can’t meet.


Google: an algorithm trying to be a brand

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

As I’ve noted previously (latest here) Google in many respects is an algorithm trying (and often failing) to be a brand. It “gets” information, but it doesn’t “get” humans. Google Buzz is the latest example of the latter.

In Why Google Buzz isn’t buzz-worthy Mike Egan of Datamation details key shortcomings that stand between the algorithmic Google and Google as a “psychological space” (i.e., brand) that customers can trust.

If Google can’t rise to the level of a trusted brand, where it teams with customers instead of relentlessly mining them for data, its ability to compete with brands such as Apple will be diminished.


Feb. 11 In response to widespread privacy concerns over the Buzz implementation process, Google as tweaked and clarified the process. See here.

For additional context, see The negative buzz around Google’s new social network in the New York Times.


Google’s automated brand can’t connect

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010


In deep space it might have been a good idea: since your business exists on computers and is accessed by computers, put your brand on computers, too. Automate it. Keep messy customers on the other side of the screen. Create an online Help Page. Fill it with FAQ’s. Cue up some Forums. Add video. List some email links but tell customers not to expect personal replies. Better yet, delegate customer service to your partners. And best of all, don’t include a phone number. Why invite time-wasting customer calls? Listening is not your business.

Then sit back and let the automated brand work its magic. No fuss. No muss. No puny humans fouling the flow.

In reality it was a bad idea

In reality—on Earth— it was a bad idea. On January 5, 2010 Google boldly announced the Nexus One “superphone,” a highly advanced iPhone competitor. The launch event was a smash, but things then went downhill. Google’s automated brand couldn’t connect with customers. Its few online circuits were promptly overloaded. So many customer questions disappeared into the ether that the New York Times asked, Hey Google, Anybody Home?

Customers called, and the brand wasn’t there.

Customers had questions—lots of them

Customers had questions—lots of them—especially about buying the Nexus One for $529 unlocked. Google made that offer a big part of the launch, raising a lot of “big first” questions, especially since the Nexus One is sold only from the Nexus One website. And—reading the fine print—it did seem that if customers bought the phone at a discounted price with a carrier (T-Mobile) contract, they might face early termination fees greater than the full price of the unlocked phone itself. Whoa! How does that work?

Searching for a brand relationship

Before shelling out hundreds of dollars for a path-breaking new smartphone many customers searched for a brand relationship from Google itself. Spending big bucks for an untested smartphone is a big risk that can only be mitigated by a highly positive brand relationship. Customers wanted a direct connection to the real Google behind the screen—to that human Google that had forever seemed so elusive. They especially wanted to feel confident that Google would support the Nexus One  in years to come, since its record of supporting its brand of phones was—at this time—precisely zero.

They searched for a brand relationship and wound up with a web page.

Customers notice if you don’t connect the brand dots

Customers connect the brand dots. They notice when you don’t. A path-breaking product from a new vendor has a lot of dots to connect if it wants to build the trust that builds markets. Apple has 284 Apple stores. In Google’s case, customers may have wondered how they could trust Google when it didn’t see fit to include a phone number for customer service on its site—when Google was proclaiming itself a major player in the phone business. Perhaps customers thought: You’re selling expensive super cool phones, but you don’t have a phone number to call. Hello?

Nexus One customer service complaints

Launching a forward-focused, highly innovative product on the shoulders of an automated brand is guaranteed to let customers down. Many customers apparently bailed on the Google brand when they couldn’t get answers from Google’s Nexus One Help Page. Immediately following the Nexus One launch, reports of customer dissatisfaction were all over the Web. A sampling:

  1. Google Nexus One leaves customers sour Wired
  2. Nexus One a test of Google’s customer service CNET
  3. Google faces deluge of Nexus One complaints PC World
  4. Google, Nexus One and the customer service risk ZD Net
  5. Google’s Nexus One issues threaten its push to shake up mobile Wall St. Journal

The brand is not an algorithm

It’s tempting to think that we can reduce a brand to a simple, repeatable formula, and then activate it in finitum. Unfortunately, a brand is not an algorithm. It can’t be automated. It’s a living customer connection, vital, emotional, and changeable, drawing a large part of its life from customers.

Brands, in fact, are the opposite of algorithms. They’re interactive structures of discovery, far more culture than commerce. They’re made to innovate, to explore and to create new forms of value with customers as partners. At their edges they reinvent themselves daily. That’s how they can create new classes of customers that drive the business forward, into new market spaces. A fixed brand agenda to contain customers or to lock them in place is a prescription for failure.

There is no “beta” in brands

While Google is famed for it’s innumerable “beta” releases of free software, where it could formally shift risk to customers, those days are over. While there may be lots of “beta” in product development, there is no “beta” in brands. The grown-up Google is judged by its brand.

A slow start for Nexus One sales?

Wired and the Wall Street Journal have reported hat sales of Nexus One are off to a slow start. If true, part of the reason may be Google’s failure to advance its brand with personally engaging customer service. Without such personal engagement, customer questions, doubts and fears can easily become a decision that says, “Too risky. No thanks.” A weak or reluctant Google brand will mean that the Nexus One may never achieve its potential sales volume and market share.

Google as a brand of trust

In an abbreviated sense, we can identify three phases in the evolution of Google’s brand:

1. A work in progress —  The “beta” years, now history.

2. It just works — The current phase of high-performance automation

3. Google works for you — The next phase of brand trust

This next phase will be Google’s greatest challenge to date. It entails a Google brand built on relationships, not algorithms. It means Google must excel as a brand of trust, connecting with customers beyond the machine interface.

Nexus One as a brand wake-up call

Google’s customer service shortfalls with Nexus One are in fact a wake-up call for the Google brand. While Google has done a masterful job advancing customers with highly-integrated information services, it has reached a point where trust in Google is now every bit as vital as Google’s software brilliance. Google can’t automate the next step.

Photo credit: Iitmuse — Flickr

The iPad’s (coming) killer app: education

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

trinity oxford

We’ll have to wait a bit for Apple’s iPad killer app in education.

In recent months I made the (speculative) case that a new Apple tablet that integrated textbooks, lectures, course materials and coursework could have a transformative impact on higher education. You can see my reasoning in the following posts:

  1. Is Apple positioned to disrupt universities?
  2. More thoughts on how Apple’s (rumored) iTablet could reinvent higher education

Like many others I tuned into Apple’s January 27 launch event to see what Steve Jobs and company envisioned for their new tablet computer.

Apple’s education initiative is not ready for prime time

The iPad name certainly works as a learning tool, but about 20 minutes into the launch event it became clear that Apple’s education initiative was not yet ready for prime time. It was not going to happen during this keynote. There was nothing said (or demoed) about the iPad and textbooks, when we know that Apple has been meeting with textbook publishers on how the iPad could raise textbooks to a whole new level. There was also no mention of any learning or education apps, or of an enhanced iTunes University infrastructure, or of key university partners, or other elements that would naturally flow from an integrated education initiative with Apple in a central role.

Ready for the fall semester?

Apple does have some time on its side. The iPad itself won’t be commercially available until late March (for the Wi-Fi version), and in April for the 3G version. This window allows Apple more time to finalize new features and apps, and to establish working relationships with its many partners in an educational iPad ecosystem. A spring iPad education launch could position the iPad as the ideal off-to-school computer for the Fall 2010 semester.

Why buy your kid a crummy netbook when the iPad can be fully integrated with the education process?

A muted launch event

Education is a game-changing market for the iPad, but I didn’t hear the word “education” once in the official video of the launch event. Steve Jobs and others rhapsodized about the iPad as a supremely portable device for browsing, watching videos and movies, reading ebooks, newspapers and magazines, and playing games. The few demos were lackluster or rushed. No wonder the general reaction to the launch event was muted. Where was the game-changer? How did the iPad point beyond itself to some greater good? Where was its unique contribution to culture, to make a difference that matters?

We witnessed the introduction of a beautiful and highly capable tablet computer with no compelling reason to embrace it beyond its (limited) coolness. What crucial problem did it solve?

Why Apple didn’t refer to the iPad and education

If the iPad has so much potential in education, why didn’t Apple at least mention what it planned to do with the iPad in the education arena? It all comes down to impact, and how Apple builds its brand. The Apple brand aims to command every context in which it appears. It’s a diva; it owns the stage. To command a context Apple “reinvents” a key aspect of culture by enabling new ways of being and doing via Apple technology. The brand is transformative. An Apple launch event is therefore a conceptual and paradigmatic breakthrough as much as a technology breakthrough. In this approach, either you launch the complete product and brand ecosystem, and the new paradigm, with all guns blazing and all trumpets blaring, or you keep everything completely under wraps until the time is right. You don’t dribble. A piecemeal launch is worse than no launch at all.

Thus the January iPad launch became a device launch only. The education initiative will follow, in command of its own context, with select partners, evangelists, champions and endorsers, when the time is right.

Two signs of things to come

I did observe two signs of things to come in Apple’s education initiative, however. One was almost hidden in the keynote itself, the other lies in an interview with a highly-regarded VC after the launch.

The intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts

The iPad keynote did reveal a significant sign about what’s coming in education, although it’s tucked away at the very end of Steve Jobs’s presentation. Go to the 1:31 mark on the official Apple video and look at the image on the screen. Steve is discussing how the iPad represents  the “intersection of technology and liberal arts.” Liberal arts? As in, um, a college curriculum? Yes indeed, but that’s as far as he goes. Behind Steve on the screen is a street sign that shows two intersecting streets: Technology and Liberal Arts. How are they related? What’s Apple’s game-changing role? Since when is “Liberal Arts” an Apple focus? All this is brought up at the end of the keynote. We’re left hanging.

BTW, don’t be surprised if this is the first image you see when Apple announces its iPad education initiative. My sense is that it came from a separate presentation.

John Doerr on the iPad’s education potential

John Doerr, one of Silicon Valley’s the world’s leading venture capitalists, sees great education potential in the iPad. Is he in a position to know something? He does manage the $100 million iFund. Check out his initial comments as he’s interviewed by Om Malik just after the iPad launch event. (John’s segment begins a few seconds into the video; that’s David Carr pictured below.)

John says he’s particularly excited about what the iPad can do in education, with the iPad’s potentially “transformative” effect on American education and education worldwide. As I noted in a previous post, an iPad education initiative may enable a student in Oxford, Mississippi to take a class offered in Oxford, England.

Potential scope of Apple’s “killer app” for education

To summarize from my previous posts, the iPad’s ability to combine textbooks, lectures, class materials, course notes, class work and reference materials in an interactive, networked device could make the iPad a handheld university, a portable and immensely powerful learning platform. Combined with an expansion of Apple’s iTunes University, iTunes distribution network, and working arrangements with textbook publishers and universities, the iPad could enable Apple to become a leading brand of education. The “killer app”  is the integrated system (and ecosystem) that Apple brings to the table: the affordable, portable iPad, operating software, apps, partners, iTunes ecommerce for purchasing textbooks and other learning materials, iTunes U for courseware distribution, networking and infrastructure. All this could conceivably power campus learning, distance learning, and elements of non-university schooling as well. The whole soup to nuts.

Why the iPad needs to make an impact in education

After the iPad launch many commentators called the iPad the definitive media consumption device, perfect for web browsing and for buying music, videos, movies, books, and newspapers from Apple’s online stores. This is the iPad as a (mostly) passive device. It creates consumers who sit there and buy things, much like traditional TV.

While there’s obviously great profit potential in such a consumption-focused device, is that the legacy Apple (or Steve Jobs) desires—to create the second incarnation of the boob tube?

I don’t think so. Apple often describes its products as making contributions to culture. To quote Apple COO Tim Cook:

We believe that we’re on the face of the Earth to make great products, and that’s not changing. We’re constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

If you want to make a “significant contribution” you don’t settle for a digital consumption device. You aim higher, to a proactive learning platform that improves education and pays cultural dividends many times over, across every country in the world. That’s how you build the brand.