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The Road to Hell is Paved…

Six weeks ago I added a blog posting entitled Brands that outrun their story, in which I speculated that Starbucks is having a difficult time regaining its footing as a brand precisely because the story on which the brand was built seems to be contradicted by the very size and success of the business.

By the same token Walmart–which was arguably in an even deeper hole than Starbucks three years ago–has done a better job of climbing out of that hole because the Walmart story, at its best, is very congruent with its size and success.

So what about Google? One of our readers asked if we thought that Google was in danger of outrunning its story, which provoked the following thoughts:

On the one hand, the Google brand was built around people’s experience of a free service, presenting a clean, non-commercial home page and a funny, playful name. As a business, it had a kids-in-a-dorm-room kind of feel to it: friendly and a little self-deprecating.

On the other hand, the model for the business Google was building is a poster child for the network effect: connect uncountable hordes of people and mine unfathomable streams of information until the resulting flow of cash could sink even the Evil Empire of Microsoft itself.

The conflict, as so often happens, was right in the name. On the surface, Google sounds warm, fuzzy and almost cartoony. At the same time, for engineers with their hands on the controls of the digital economy, the word googol stands for numbers so big the rest of us don’t know how to deal with them. The conflict is also acknowledged in the company’s informal motto, “Don’t be evil.” The phrase sounds anti-corporate in a glib, rebellious way, while at the same time clearly referencing the corruption that can accompany great wealth and power.

From a story point of view, the future of Google as a brand depends entirely on what objective is communicated by its actions in the world. In other words, what does the brand want? A brand is like a character in the drama of its category. As a member of the audience watching that drama, I am suspicious of any character whose motive is not clear. If a brand fails to convey a clear and convincing sense of what it wants, then my default assumption must be that the brand is only interested in my money. 

In that sense, Google’s strategic marketing problem is very much like Walmart’s. As vast commercial enterprises, both Google and Walmart must communicate a sense of purpose above and beyond making money. Otherwise, they will have an increasingly tough time making money.

From the beginning, Google has done a good job of articulating a larger purpose: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. The question is, do you believe them? It was easy to buy this as altruism when it seemed like kids in a dorm room playing with geeky algorithms. Now that they are becoming more and more deeply enmeshed with our vital personal information, and the opportunities to exploit that information are so clear, do you still believe they are capable of managing their wealth and power in a way that honors their stated purpose?

I’d love to hear your answers to those questions.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery