How Google Got Its Brand Back
The year is 1999. Douglas Edwards is working out in Silicon Valley at the local newspaper. He does marketing, and he starts to notice some new businesses popping up nearby. Somebody mentions a little startup they’re intrigued by.
“This Google,” Edwards asks, “what do they make?”
“Internet search,” he’s told.
“Search? Ha. Good luck with that.”
You have to remember that back in 1999, Internet search was pretty bad. I remember using a site called Dogpile.com, which churned through a dozen search engines and showed you the best results. Ideally, out of a dozen search engines, one would give you the results you wanted.
Out of this murky search world came Google. And it’s a strange thing to imagine now, because Google in 2012 is such an iconic brand. These days, Google’s right there with Coke or Apple or GM, and Google’s TV ads are amazing. You’ve seen one and teared up, I’m guessing.
But back in 1999, Google wasn’t some insanely well-marketed company. In fact, as Edwards details in his book, “I’m Feeling Lucky,” the Google guys — Larry Page and Sergey Brin — initially hated branding.
Edwards has an interesting perspective on the Google story. Just a few months after he first heard of Google and dismissed it, he took a job as Google’s head marketing guy. In time, he became the voice of the brand.
The way he tells it, Google didn’t spend much money on branding at first. They didn’t even want to brand. When Edwards told the executive team that they needed to use branding to set themselves apart from sites like Yahoo! and Ask Jeeves, Page said, “If we can’t win on quality [of search results], we shouldn’t win at all.”
Marketing? Marketing was for losers. In the early days, the Google guys decided that their brand would be defined not by ad campaigns, but by a singular focus: Be the best search engine on the planet. In doing so, they stumbled upon a brand by accident, because they realized that people don’t buy into your strategy — they buy into the difference you make in the world.
Writes Edwards, the Google guys asked themselves, “Why slow down to explain when the value of what they were doing was so self-evident that people would eventually see it for themselves?” Google’s leadership saw branding as the search box on google.com, and nothing more. If the box always gave you the answers you wanted, the brand would sell itself.
That’s why, when everyone else in the Valley was doing it, Google wasn’t interested in a Super Bowl ad or a million-dollar campaign. Its founders talked about using lasers to project Google’s logo on the moon. They wanted to take their marketing budget and use it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera. They wanted to hand out Google-branded condoms to high schoolers. They wanted to turn the homepage pink.
They only wanted to do the big, or the impossible, or the crazy.
The Google marketing team would propose a budget of a few million dollars for a standard ad campaign, and they’d be rejected. Google only wanted to spend money on technology and engineers, not on selling its story.
That led to a number of strange decisions. One day, the Google execs would demand that the homepage remain free of links. The next, they’d demand that the marketing team throw up a link to a blog post by one of their engineers, then traveling the country by bicycle.
So yes, once upon a time, even the great Google didn’t really understand what worked and what didn’t.
The best stuff came by accident. The first Google Doodle was drawn up in a matter of hours, and the branding team initially hated the idea. They thought that the logo was the logo — unchangeable, always and forever. The first April Fools’ joke confused users, and later versions of the joke accidentally offended some.
But both the Doodle and the April Fools’ joke became a huge part of Google’s brand.
So take heart: Google didn’t mean to become one of the biggest brands in the world. They just wanted to become the best search engine on the planet.
Where excellence treads, great brands follow.
What We Can Learn
Have a Keeper of the Brand — Who is the voice of your brand? Edwards became that guy. He was the guy who decided whether or not something was “Googly” enough. If it didn’t fit the brand, it didn’t go live on the web. That helped keep some off-message things from ending up on the homepage.
Be human — One of Google’s big branding breakthroughs came through a goofy bit of text that Edwards added to an otherwise boring terms of service agreement. People saw it and realized that there were real people behind this search engine, and it generated positive press for Google.
Focus — Great brands aren’t complicated. In 2012, Google does a billion things — they sell ads, and they manage your calendar, and they give you a browser to search the web — but at its heart, Google the noun is about Google the verb. The company is about helping you Google something to find exactly what you’re looking for. Everything else exists in support of that one thing. The brand follows.
Image courtesy of Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com