Great Fall

Why is Google being boogled?

Many of us claim to understand brands and their associated value-sets. We recognise the need to nurture brands, protect them, invest in them – marketing agencies are great believers in investment and refresh them over time. But are our traditional methodologies becoming ever more irrelevant?

The one constant about brands is their tendency to develop a life outside our marketing control. Like errant children, they no longer consider us as God-like father figures and quickly learn how to misbehave.

In some extreme cases, they appear to develop something of a death wish, hanging on for unsustainable life in some parallel regional existence like a dim country cousin living in the backwaters of Roscommon.

In other happier cases, brands resurrect themselves and become new miracles of the marketing age. We know what can happen to brands, but the frustrating thing is we can't always put a finger on the how or the why.

These conjectures about the quixotic nature of brands are brought about by realising how quickly the worm of positive publicity has turned against the up-to-recently deified Google. Google was the glory brand of the 20th century.

'Do Not Do Evil' its creators, said in their original mission statement and so Google proceeded brilliantly to do the opposite. Google became everything we instinctively knew brands were capable of becoming – known, innovative, loved, admired and capable of generating strong customer loyalty.

Why, we could even live with the fact that Google didn't appear to invest heavily in above-the-line advertising to build awareness – word-of-mouth (or, rather more correctly, word-of-web) seemed to do the trick.

Everywhere the two founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, went, TV cameras followed. Politicians fought to get their faces in the Google picture. Hardened journalists hung on every word from the mouth of the Google – they became Google apostles and we were all their willing disciples.

Then suddenly, the tides of fortune changed. Google goes public, shares soar, the good guys become multi-billionaires, and adulation begins to waver. Some of the bad feeling may be down to pure envy at the shed loads of money Google had been making, even before they took the Stock Exchange shilling.

It seemed morally wrong to make so much profit and yet not be despised like big oil companies or financial institutions. Everyone has to pay for their wealth; Brin & Page can't just have it for free.

Still the business model on which Google was based continued to go unchallenged. Initiatives like Google Earth merited and earned respect. These guys were good and they really knew their brand onions. Until one fateful day, Google bit the capitalist bullet and traded in strong social brand values for a slice of the Chinese market. Nothing wrong with that, every worthwhile company is off to Shanghai a market-share of the world's fastest growing economy. But there is a difference.

One expects HSBC and Shell to take a pragmatic profit-focused view, but Google stood for something much more important than that – freedom of expression, no state domination – true values and not just brand values.

In its defence, Google claims it is better to operate in China under the dictates of a non-elected regime rather than stay on the sidelines – the 'win-from-within' line of argument one has heard so often in the past.

Google says it will ensure Chinese citizens know their rights to certain information is being censored, unlike other service providers such as Yahoo and MSN, a decision, they feel, helps restore some credibility.

But the suspicion remains that it is the financial demands of new investors rather than the innate wishes of the founders that are the dominating factors behind this un-Google-like decision in China. How damaging will this be to the future face of Google? Hard to tell.

Already the chinks (no pun intended) are showing in their public relations armour. Newspaper publishers are getting together to squeeze money out of Google's deep pockets in return for allowing continuing rights to use newspaper headlines, photos and copy from thousands of news sources.

One might ask, where do journalists find inspiration and information for thousands of stories? That's right, they Google them, without payment and mostly without acknowledgement. A test case between Agence France Presse (AFP) and Google is pending in an American court.

What this shows is that Google has opened itself to accusations of less-than-perfect behaviour. Sadly, the days of Google as perfect brand citizens have probably vanished. Google has boogled.

Whatever happened to cool clean heroes?

(I have not borrowed the term 'boogled', at least not to my knowledge. I may have just invented it. Is so, you read it here first)

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