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.
Recessive brands are not viable
No one can argue with Android’s market share success in mobile, but I would contend that Google’s recessive brand strategy is unsustainable over the long haul. The OS has to have a strong brand behind it, one that thrives on user interaction and for being accountable for what it does. A recessive brand may work as a tactic to initially flood a market, but it lacks the connective tissue to grow a powerful brand base. It leaves too much customer on the table.
In tablets, Amazon’s Kindle Fire is evidence that Android’s open source decision has backfired by enabling major low-price competition from Amazon. At the higher end, Apple’s tightly integrated iPad2 (with a strong brand behind it) has set a commanding standard. Android tablets lag far behind. What are Google’s odds now that it’s competing head-to-head as a non-brand with Amazon and Apple, two of the most powerful brands in the business? Short answer: dismal.
In mobile, Android versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 were used by different device makers and carriers in a slew of releases that made OS fragmentation a major issue for coveted app developers. There were too many different Android versions to develop for, and too many loose ends, so developers said no thanks. Apple’s unified (and strongly curated) iPhone iOS has become the mobile OS of app developer choice. Android apps lag far behind.
What should Google do?
What should Google do to regain brand momentum? Happily, it’s already taking major steps.
Tactically, Google can end the fragmentation of earlier Android versions by issuing a canonical update. This it has done with Android 4.0 for mobile devices and tablets. Device makers, though, are still free to modify the user interface and insert their own add-ons (as carriers are known to do.) Thus, the canonical “Android experience” remains ephemeral.
Google could become “the whole brand” by producing phones and tablets itself, transforming the Google brand into vertically integrated value, a la Apple. Voila: Google has announced plans to acquire Motorola Mobility, maker of the Droid phones and Xoom tablets, among others, for $12.5 billion. The extent to which these Moto phones will exemplify the Google brand remains to be seen. That runs the risk of alienating Google’s current device partners (which also raises questions about the brand wisdom of that original open source strategy.)
Google’s Nexus Prime is the latest canonical Google phone, doing business as the (Samsung) Galaxy Nexus. History is not on the side of half-brands.
Google might also focus and integrate its services, becoming a unified brand rather than 1001 parts. Voila: Eric Schmidt gets kicked upstairs and Larry Page takes charge as CEO with a charter to streamline operations and focus, focus, focus.
These are steps forward, to be sure, but they really don’t address Google’s paramount brand challenge, which—as I have argued previously—is how to become a brand of trust. For Google, no trust, no future.
Strategically, Google’s only hope is to become a brand of trust
Google’s descent into recessive brand territory is (in my view) an extension of its desire to be unaccountable to end users. It doesn’t want to look them in the eyes. Strategically, however, Google must come to grips with its brand responsibilities. It can’t ignore them any longer. A recessive brand is not a competitive strength. This means rethinking the Google business model and its brand model, and moving end users (you and me) from being sheep-like Google products (our info-fleece groomed and harvested) to being customers and proactive innovation partners. From a brand perspective, Google’s only hope in our increasingly “social” world is to become—fundamentally—a brand of trust. It must innovate toward social freedom rather than toward social capture. Crack that nut and the rest of Google operations will fall into place as a brand platform of sustainable services. Otherwise, Google and Facebook will circle each other in a race to the bottom, and there’s no brand future in that–for anyone.
Additional background links
For background on Amazon’s use of Android against Google, see How Amazon picked Google’s lock. You can find a “first impressions” review of the Kindle Fire in the Washington Post. I also refer you to the Quora discussion: How likely is it that Amazon will wrest control of Android away from Google, as Microsoft did to IBM with the PC?