Google’s automated brand can’t connect


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

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