Google brand and other moments of meaning manufacture


I have been on the road for the last week and a half, and something remarkable happened while I was away. Google went from being the darling of the internet to something poised on the verge of branding ignominy. WTF?

Many things are happening at once here. John Battelle’s book about Google is being talked about.  Google is on the verge of a second stock offering.  There are two new products, Talk and Desktop 2, that reveal more comprehensive ambitions in the marketplace. The article by Elinor Mills, a CNET staff writer, has been released and Google has blacklisted CNET.

The most striking public event in the last 10 days: the press is now prepared to speak ill of Google. Criticism has become a thinkable posture.

I guess this was inevitable The anti-Microsoft could not hope to remain so forever.  As it grew, Google would eventually lose it’s "little guy" status and risk reclassification as the new bully on the scene. 

But what is interesting for a marketer is to watch this event play out in one’s own head.  Over the last few years, Google had wormed its way into my affections. I had made it my search engine, my email supplier, and my desktop search engine. I was impressed by the product development strategies and other aspects of the corporate culture. I was pleased to see Google anoint itself as an enemy of the philistine Microsoft.

And then in the last ten days, things shifted. Call me capricious. Call me inconstant. Call me superficial. But suddenly I could feel the brand slips its moorings. For a marketer, this is a revelational moment. We are there at the moment of creation, in this case, recreation.  We are there to feel the brand sliding out of one meaning and sit poised on the verge of others. 

Most of cultural meanings come draped in their own inevitability…even when they are that particularly subset of meaning, the brand. We don’t choose to think them. They’re just there. We don’t give them their authority. They bring that with them when they enter our world.  We don’t give brands their power or their meanings. We merely honor what is extant.

Until things change. Google is now exploring that moment when the brand is suddenly separated from the meanings and the glory thrust upon it. (No doubt, some of these meanings were crafted through good marketing.  But only some.) Now, the thing, the brand, is negotiable. Now its labile.  Now we know what Google does next, and how we respond will make this thing in our heads called “Google.” 

Now the hard work of marketing begins in earnest.  I wish them well. I think.

7 thoughts on “Google brand and other moments of meaning manufacture

  1. Peter

    Very interesting post, Grant (as usual). I wonder if part of the effect you detect is due to the manner in which most of us came to know of the Google search engine versus how we have come to know of later Google products.

    Awareness of Google search engine was originally spread by wom (word-of-mouth), first among a group of people at Berkeley’s Computer Science Dept (where it all began), and then to their friends and colleagues outwards from there. I believe this wom began before Google was a company, and so I think it was not an intentional marketing strategy of the Google founders. I’ve been a user of their search engine since 1998 or so, and I heard about it from an academic computer scientist. I think most longer-term Google search engine users would have first heard about it from someone they know.

    I think this factor gives a certain flavour to the cultural meanings attached to the brand, which — perhaps — is absent from the meanings of the later Google products. I know that for their email service, they again tried to build market presence through wom (and exclusivity), but most of us would have first become aware of the product before that, through stories in the mass media or the business/IT media.

    Your post raises interesting questions about how the meaning of a message can be coupled with the medium used for its transmission: The medium is defnitely a part of the message. (As a tangential note, so-called Information Theory — due to Shannon, et al, and which allegedly underpins our present age — has nothing to say on this topic *at all*, since it explicitly ignores the semantics of communications. It is a theory of autistic communication only.)

  2. IshMEL

    Of course one of the signs that your brand has jumped the shark is when the Onion starts making fun of you: See “Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can’t Index” [ ]. I think part of what’s happening is the Underdog Phenomenon. Remember when Amazon was the plucky startup trying to fight the behemoth of Barnes & Noble? Now Amazon is the behemoth. I think the same thing’s happening with Google. (Incidentally, someone better get on the horn and tell them to put up a Katrina donation button on their home page, stat.)

  3. Ginger

    This new turn feels like a different phase of the natural arc that every trend, meme, major brand seems to go through: creation, fall, redemption. During the brand creation of Google, it felt like a personal secret that no one knew about except you and a select few. It was like a speakeasy, as Peter mentioned. Goodwill toward Google crested in the tech community months ago, when Google started to saturate every inch of public brainspace. Big media outlets are now picking up on that. We’re all tired of hearing about Google. It has hit that point when a popular song becomes too familiar and no longer sounds good.

    The interesting phase will be Google’s redemption — how they make (or don’t make) it happen. How are they going to build a sustained personal relationship with each user that brings out the cheerleader in them again? How do you make millions of people feel special and important again?

  4. Steve Portigal

    Here in Silicon Valley there is a Google/Yahoo tension. The digerati press and blogosphere was often doing bits about how Yahoo didn’t get it anymore and Google did. About 3 or 4 months ago that shifted back with an article around the 10th anniversary of Yahoo pointing to things like the leadership at Yahoo being more focused on the actual user than at Google (and find any designer from Google and they’ll tell you the same thing).

    One can’t avoid the regular postings from Yahoo HR trying to staff up in various design and user-centered capacities. They have enormous head count, they are growing rapaciously, all one’s friends end up working at Yahoo, even in other parts of California. They are growing, they are Doing Things. It seems more real somehow than the latest thing from Google.

    Many points buried in this rant, I guess, but the key one is that Google/Microsoft isn’t the only cultural metric for goodness/innovativeness of the brand and product. There’s a key Yahoo story here as well.

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