I’ve previously critiqued Google’s brand strategy (here, here and here) for what I consider short-sighted brand approaches that limit Google’s social appeal. It now appears that Google may pay an additional price for being brand timid when it could have been bold. Amazon’s new Kindle Fire threatens the Google Android brand in tablets because Google developed Android as a recessive brand. In monumental brand irony the Kindle Fire will use Amazon’s version of Android against Google itself, as the anchor of a complete brand ecosystem, potentially taking Android app developers—and Android customers—with it. Brand-wise, Amazon is positioned to take Google’s lunch and eat it, too.
How on earth could the Google brand let this happen?
A fork in the Android brand
To answer the question above we first have to examine the provenance of Android itself. Google developed Android as open source software. Google offers it essentially free to mobile device makers to spur its adoption in as many mobile devices as possible. There’s a catch, however. Software that’s open source can be–and often is–”forked.” While Android readily lets licensees add their UI and top end elements to the base software, developers can–if they wish–forgo the official Android license and take the open source code in a new direction entirely, “forking” or branching it from its original path. The newly independent code can’t use the Android name, or Google add-on’s like Maps, Google Voice, etc., but that may not matter. The new fork has its own agenda, and is essentially a new brand itself.
The big forker is Amazon
Enter Amazon. Amazon has cleverly taken an older version of Android and developed a proprietary Amazon tablet OS with it, tightly integrated into Amazon’s market offerings. The result is the Kindle Fire, offered at a disruptive price of $199 (seriously undercutting the price points of Android’s tablet partners). The Kindle Fire is a full-function tablet that incorporates Amazon’s app store, downloads for games, music and video, books and everything else in the vast Amazon offering. It bypasses the standard Android App Market and other Android services set up by Google as part of the original Android platform. Amazon thus steps in to potentially steal revenue from Google and its Android tablet partners. It also potentially excludes Google from the valuable user information capture that’s critical to Google’s revenue model. That information capture is what Google envisioned for Android in the first place.
Android as a recessive brand
Let’s now take a close look at the nature of a recessive brand. A recessive brand does not pass its full DNA to customers as a unique and compelling context of value or brand experience. It “does a job” but otherwise keeps to the background, deferential and dumb. It doesn’t lead; it goes along for the ride. It does not procreate brand value. It doesn’t stand tall as a brand that one can interact with, get to know, and ultimately trust.
Escape from accountability
As I see it, Android was developed as a recessive brand that happily surrenders its Google identity for the sake of fast global ubiquity. Beyond that, the passive Android taps into Google’s historic un-brand ethos of not wanting to be held accountable–for anything. In other words, Google wants Android brand ubiquity without Android brand responsibility. It doesn’t want to be on the hook for OS issues, screw-ups and associated problems where it has to deal with those messy things called people. In contrast to a proactive brand that embraces customers and stands behind its product, Android needs someone else to “front” the brand and to deal with you and me. In mobile and tablets the front men are the device makers (HTC, Samsung, et. al.) and the carriers.