The Google brand: what would Simmel say?

Logo I was at an event last night that took place at the intersection of culture, capital and technology.  (To protect everyone’s anonymity, I won’t say more.) 

Several tech people spoke with loathing about Google.  One of the notions seemed to be that this corporation, made virtuous by its determination not to be like Microsoft, is now quite a lot like Microsoft: large, dangerous, another brand behaving badly.  The slogan "don’t be evil" sloughed the negative.  Interesting.

Is this true?  I don’t know and I hope not.  But it might be early warning.  Diffusion theory tells us that the future can be read if we can just get to the top of the diffusion path.  If the early adopters are bailing out, someone like me, a middle adopter, might eventually follow suit.  I won’t know why I’m now longer pro-Google.  I just won’t be.  This is the way that brands come and go.  This is one of the ways Google eclipsed Microsoft.   

The diffusion theory here comes from the German sociologist Simmel.  This says that adoption runs like a pig through a python.  The earliest adopters take hold of the pig and then three things happen. 

1) The later adopters go, "Pig!  Yes, please.  Now that I know about it, and now that it has been approved by my betters, I would very much like some pig." 

2) The early adopters go, "Oh, please.  Now that our lessers are consuming pig, we’re not interested" and they bail out.

3) Eventually, the later adopters notice that the early adopters have bailed, and they bail, too. 

Thus does a bump run through the python.  As each later group adopts, each previous group repudiates.  (Of course there are always extenuating circumstances.  Adoption is also decided by the value created by competing parties.  Simmel’s theory accounts only for the effects of admiration and imitation.)

Now, the marketing community is keenly interested in buzz, word of mouth and the tipping point.  But many marketers seem to believe you get to keep the early adopters.  They act as if the python keeps filling up from one end to the other.  In their view, apparently, the adoption process is not a running bump. It’s a filling up. 

For these marketers, all we have to do is to ignite interest and watch diffusion happen.  We never have to worry about what we might call the classic Simmellian question: what are our early adopters doing, and what happens when they bail?

Last night, I might have been listening to the early adopters signaling that they are done with the brand. And it can only be a matter of time when an middle adopter like me begins to have doubts.  This is the moment for Google to intervene, and reprogram the diffusion effect.  That’s what marketing’s for.  Maybe it’s time to reach out and rebuild the relationship with the early adopters.

I might be wrong.  Maybe the word-of-mouth community is all over this.  Would love to hear.   

11 thoughts on “The Google brand: what would Simmel say?”

  1. Hi Grant, great post & good question. I think the very nature of early adopters precludes that they will move on, perhaps when the number of “me-to” people reaches that tipping point. These early adopters will go in search of the next great thing that no one knows about. Trying to rebuilt relationships with this group, after they’re convinced its time to move on, is only buying time, in my opinion.

    Google is still a great brand, but I agree they must be careful not to morph into their Microsoft evil-twins. Then again, I didn’t need Google to realize what Microsoft was and is-for me Microsoft’s actions have spelled “control-freak” and “mediocre” all along. Being a Mac person who also uses ME, XP, etc. its easy to see that Microsoft isn’t interested in providing customers with great products or good usability, their only interest is making $ and lots of it. People are lazy, penny-wise and pound foolish, and most aren’t open to change. MS has capitalized on this to make their OS the middling, mediocre “standard”.

    Apple: “Think Different.”
    Microsoft: “Think Difficult.”

    Google may not get to keep its early adopters, and may relinquish some of its “cool” factor, but as long as it continues to create innovative, intelligent products that make for great usability and seamless interactivity, and not try to bully competitors or assert “control” over users it can remain the anti-Microsoft. If Google fails at this, I believe some other innovative start-up will come out of the woodwork to replace them.

  2. Great thoughts. You have me thinking.

    I wonder if this might not be as true for Google. I just recently added Google Earth functionality to google maps. It’s almost like Google Earth without the application. I feel like Google is offering me something quite often that makes me appreciate them.

    However, I think that for the longest time, Microsoft didn’t care about advances in technology. Whether that was true or not, that was the brand personality. They didn’t need to care because they owned the desktop. Now though, they are fighting for their lives. So you get things like SeaDragon. Check this: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/129
    It makes me want to like Microsoft, perhaps for the first time ever.

    My point, while I think I agree with your premise, I’ll suggest that obviously further innovation can act as more pig. If Google continues to innovate, perhaps they won’t lose everyone.

    And Microsoft, doing something really cool? That sure seems off my brand impression.

  3. Sounds like the grapes were rather tart at the gathering you describe, Grant.

    As for an innovative start-up coming along to replace Google…they better have lots and lots and lots of money, ’cause it ain’t gonna be easy to find something to fill the space occupied by that pig.

  4. The problem for Google is that they are becoming a utility, like the phone company and the gas company and yes, like Microsoft Windows and Office. Nobody likes their utility provider. It always seems big and powerful, making decisions that affect everyone else. When it changes something, it screws up all the things that depend on it; when it doesn’t change enough, people who feel locked in get antsy. I wrote a little post on strategy issues for “new-style” utilities at http://organizationsandmarkets.com/2007/03/19/utility-strategy/.

  5. The strange thing is that Google has done so little in Search over the last couple of years. They’ve built a money-making Ad Sense platform, they’ve bought out the biggest video delivery service over the net – You Tube, they’ve expanded their ‘experiment’ with newspapers to sell excess inventory and they’re making efforts to take over radio as well. From search to media aggregation has been a quick transition.

  6. Hi Grant. Fabulous post. A few thoughts… I’ve been thinking about the way programs like Flex that are going to change our relationship to Google et al. Apparently, a lot of programmers are already creating ‘google applications’ that don’t actually require a browser… but rather just run a straight connection between a computer and the internet. So my question, I suppose is if ditching browsers is going to change the way we use google and ebay and ….. whatever. And especially if people (through the apparently simplicity of Flex) can build their own personalised search engines – perhaps a composit engine, will Google become somewhat invisible? Still running, but as much a brand as your company’s local server is a brand. What does invisibility do to a brand? Does this reach further into the bowels of brand austerity and authenticity trends? I certainly prefer my food unpackaged, why not have an unpackaged Google as well? This all makes sense to me for some strange reason…

    I hope you’re doing well… enjoying a proper summer climate!
    -collyn

  7. Grant, I’m not sure that “users” identify themselves with applications the way that “techies” do. They have no vested interest in being an early adopter and influencer, and few people walk around displaying their software allegiances.

    I couldn’t care less if the mainstream has adopted Quickbooks, Word, Gmail, or whatever other application I happen to be using at the moment. If I switch, like I recently did from Act! to Highrise for contact management and task scheduling, it’s because I found better value despite the switching costs.

  8. Good post Grant.
    Perhaps there different facets in the Google-good/Google-bad discussion.
    At the user interface, I would have to say it´s still mostly Google good.
    It´s at the commercial interface that the “Google-bad” talk is most voluble.
    I have come across a disturbing (for some) tone in their recruitment adds (coming out on LinkedIn). Very MBAish, Google practices etc. A different culture emerging: a confident (some would say arrogant) dominant market leader. Microsoft parallels? Could be.

  9. Good post, Grant – a summary of one of the very big ideas of your book.

    I think most commentators would agree these ideas apply to fashion (clothing), and to hi-tech products. What I believe is interesting is the fact that they apply to every other product and service as well. Even tomatos, for goodness’ sake, I have heard discussed at dinner parties in terms of their varieties and provenance, as if they were fine wines. And the purchase of raw materials such as coal, as studies have shown, is subject to fads among buyers. Purchasers of absolutely everything are influenced by peer-group pressures, it seems.

    But, of course, we marketers should delight in this behavior! If there were no product lifecycles, there would not be many decisions for marketers to make.

  10. I read this right after reading the post on “front stage” and “Back stage”, and notions of privacy changing. I was an EARLY Google rejector, seeing them for the money hungry capitalists that we all want to be. But one of the curious things to me was how some techies so quickly adopted everything Google, in particular because they capture your content (in e-mail, web pages, etc) things that if Microsoft did these same techies would bash all over the blogosphere/YouTubavision. Go figure.

    Google just offere the USA govt a 4.5B “bribe” to change their spectrum offering rules. Again, if ATT had done something like that, tech protests would be happening on screens everywhere.

    But like you, I find more people I talk with these days to not be quite so taken with Google.

    Apple, unlike Google, at least flew a pirate flag outside to let people know where they stood. This garnered very little large investor interest, corporate use or second stage adopters. The flag no longer flies and they have partnerships with Disney and ATT, and a market cap that surpasses HP. Who would have guessed that!

    What is funny to me is it seems that the first people down the python were the same ones as in 1998. Not sure what that means, except maybe those in first and out first are better equiped to twitter (is it still alive) around more.

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