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.