Mark Ritson on Branding: What Google can teach us

On the search engine's 10th anniversary, we can learn from its innovative branding techniques.

Happy birthday, Google. It's been exactly a decade since Sergei Brin and Larry Page set up Google Inc. in a California garage. The two founders had big plans for their company back in 1998, but even they would have been stunned to learn that 10 years later Google would become the biggest brand in the world.

Marketing students in the 80s learned their brand management from Coke, and Apple taught the key branding lessons in the 90s, so it's no surprise that Google provides the best branding lessons of the Noughties. Here are 10 of the most important, to celebrate Google's triumphant anniversary.

One: don't be too keen on market research. Google's initial success was driven by technology, innovation and the drive of two brilliant founders. Too many great brands have been ruined by a premature desire to meet consumer needs. Great brands usually begin with personal inspiration and only later worry about the satisfaction of others.

Two: who needs advertising? Google was built without any ads. Instead, it used two cheaper and far more effective brand building tools: viral marketing and public relations. Now 99% of its revenue derives from ads.

Three: burn your positioning triangles and concentric circles. The positioning-by-numbers approach damages, rather than focuses, a brand. Google grew without wheels or pyramids, creating its own shortlist of principles to guide its actions.

Four: branding is about change, not consistency. From its sparse home page to a logo that adapts to reflect world events, Google broke the traditional rules of branding to deliver on its promise to consumers.

Five: most of your future business will come from brand extensions. Google looked at long-established brands and realised early on that today's unlikely brand extensions are tomorrow's cash cows. It has been actively creating extensions, from Google Mail to Google Maps, to ensure that, while search is its origin, it is far from being its only future.

Six: branding is not a perfect game. Despite building a brand around beliefs such as 'The need for information crosses all borders' and 'You can make money without doing evil', Google spectacularly dropped the ball in 2006 when it agreed to assist the Chinese government in limiting the content provided to Chinese users searching for politically sensitive topics.

Seven: the best brand architecture is a single branded house. While other options such as sub-branding and a house of brands exist, Google's branded house confers a number of key advantages. It focuses all the strategic resources and marketing spend on a single brand. It also enables Google to grow faster internationally and build a strong culture internally.

Eight: build the brand on the inside with a strong employer brand. Google has consistently ranked as one of the top employers in the world because it applies its brand positioning to how it recruits, remunerates and motivates its people.

Nine: keep your founders. While Google appointed an external chief officer in 2001, founders Brin and Page remain in charge. Founders maintain the ethos of a brand and inspire loyalty and leadership, while also generating brand-consistent PR coverage.

10: avoid floccinaucinihilipilificationism wherever possible. And if you want to know what that means, you know where to look.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, and consultant to some of the world's leading brands 30 SECONDS ON... Google's sense of humour

- Google offers specialised search-engine interfaces for several unusual languages, including Klingon, Pig Latin, Bork Bork and the dialect of Elmer Fudd.

- An 'Easter egg' is buried in the free mapping program Google Earth, that allows users to pilot a virtual plane across the planet using a flight simulator. To access this in Google Earth, open the program and press Ctrl-Alt-A on your keyboard.

- Google Calculator also has a few surprises up its sleeve. Searching for the 'answer to life the universe and everything' reveals a familiar answer. Similarly, asking for the 'number of horns on a unicorn' or how often is 'once in a blue moon' retrieves amusingly accurate numerical responses.

- Google's Gmail is also in on the fun. Click on your spam folder and then look at the ad running above the mail box. Rather than the usual targeted advertising, you should see a recipe for spam. Click on it and a full guide to preparing the canned meat is provided.


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