We're back...

Well, we're sort of back--but not on Blogger. We've finally got our WordPress blog up and running, and moved to:





The war of the words

The appearance of a new message from Osama bin Laden—another scratchy cassette tape with an uncanny ability to cut through the daily global communication noise—reminded us of a somewhat incredible paper we ran into a year ago on the web.

This is the Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication. Commissioned by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, the report poses the problem of US policy in the Mid East in terms of marketing and brand management. You might have read about it before in a piece Sydney Blumenthal wrote in Salon in late 2004.

When we read it the first time we were taken aback, and maybe betrayed our own innocence when we asked “Is the clash between Islam and the West the sort of thing you should apply a marketing solution to?” The report plows ahead confidently. The Muslim world, it tells us, has to be understood as an audience to win in a war of ideas. The paper, written by some team of consultants well-versed in the principles of marketing communication, recommends going through all the classic steps to win the propaganda battle—research, segmentation of the Muslim “market,” trying out various positioning alternatives, developing a communication channel strategy, shaping policies to reinforce brand promises, and so on.

In the process of digging into real “customer needs” the report pulls no punches: “Today we reflexively compare Muslim ‘masses’ to those oppressed under Soviet rule. This is a strategic mistake. There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies — except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends.” Or: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.”

At any rate, the report was clearly ignored by its target audience. Assuming you even want to think about this struggle in marketing terms, it finds the administration has merely paid lip service to communication strategy at home, and as a result has needlessly damaged the “American brand” abroad.

Anyway, it’s a long paper—about 80 or 90 pages. But disturbing and thought-provoking if you give yourself an evening to chew on it.


Beta thoughts

Meanwhile, the Google Video story led us to think more about the “Beta” trend, and especially its deeper implications for branding. Maybe we are witnessing a sea change in the classic art of brand building? It used to be axiomatic that a company’s products had to create definite assurances, and reinforce trust and satisfaction in a certain level of quality right out of the gate. You developed and polished products internally until they measured up to the promise of your brand. You might do a highly controlled “release” in a test market before going live everywhere, to check reactions and fine tune messages—but then everyone’s expectations were properly set.

Marketing Beta versions is a creative, if somewhat risky, tactic in hyper-competitive, hyper-accelerated, impatient online markets where the notion that things are kind of dynamic and changeable anyway is already pretty well understood. Stephen Bryant and Michael Arrington can tell you and point you in the direction of most of what you need to know about the advantages and risks of Beta. But what about the branding piece?

Let’s assume for a moment something that Bryant raises doubts about: that Beta is a strategy with a customer in mind. Some companies—not necessarily Google—might be asking, “Can we get to market earlier with something that isn’t quite finished, and ease customers into the desired experience over time?” This does have the advantage of inviting customer input into the importance or execution of certain features on the road to finalizing the product—and God knows, that process is too frequently a crapshoot for too many marketers.

But this approach might also eventually lower, or at least start to change, the market’s overall expectation of product quality. You no longer have to wait until the model walks out onto the runway in all her stunning beauty. Now you can hang with her back in the dressing room and watch her getting her make-up done. And depending on the product category and the sophistication of the audience, that might be cool.

It’s less polished, less formal, more populist. And those aren’t necessarily bad things. But it also carries the risk of watering down the “promise of performance” that underpins a brand. The emerging philosophy seems to be, “Here, try this out. Maybe you’ll dig it. Tell us what you think. But we’re not making any promises about what it is ultimately going to be—or when.”

And in an even wider context, that seems to fit quite well with our times. All promises are tentative, and when they’re broken, don’t be too disappointed.


A store is a store is a store. Except when it’s the Google Video Store.

Why is there so much trash talk about the newest kid in the cyber mall? My first take was that it was because Google had gone ahead and launched a half-baked product, rather than holding off until it was ready for public consumption. It’s an easy impression to get, especially since so many things about both the announcement and the product seem slapdash and unfinished.

But then it struck me: The problem with Google Video isn’t that it’s beta; some pretty cool Google products still carry that label. The problem is that Google has positioned Video as a “store,” when it’s not. Google Video is a flavor of search with the option to buy what you find. VoD classifieds.

Don’t think iTunes; think craigslist, with a bit of the bargain bin at Wal-Mart thrown in.

Maybe in its desire to expand beyond search, Google would like us to believe that shopping is just another kind of searching. But I’m not buying it. Say “store” and I’m automatically expecting a whole lot more than a search box. Store conjures up the image of a place where I can navigate, browse, find, compare, preview, review, discuss, recommend, comment, email questions, authenticate, fill and empty my shopping cart, check out, and do a bunch of other things to help me find what I’m looking for and purchase it quickly, easily, confidently. What’s missing from Google Video Store is price of entry for the iTunes, Amazons, eBays of the world.

Seen through this lens, it’s no surprise that Video Store got panned.

Could it be that the company that poo-poos traditional marketing doesn’t understand that “stores” are about selling? That even if you’re philosophically opposed to merchandising, you’ve got to put some effort into displaying the wares and stocking the shelves if you’re going to set up shop? (See Truveo for a look at how it could have been done.)

The problem isn’t that the product isn’t ready for primetime; even Video’s senior product manager has gone on record saying the product is “good for users and good for content providers” and that it “shipped when it was ready.”

The problem is that they called Video a store, when it’s really just an example of Google doing what it does, giving it a new name, and figuring we wouldn’t notice the difference.


Marketing doesn't matter

That seems to be the predominant sentiment around the Googleplex. Insiders proudly point out they turned Google into a household name and an $8.5 billion dollar brand with hardly a dime spent on marketing. So who needs marketing? It’s an evil; we don’t do evil.

Maybe that sentiment played a role in the Larry Page’s CES keynote speech, which unfortunately seemed to leave fans and the press underwhelmed.

With his white lab coat and loose sheaf of notes, Page may have felt like a breath of fresh air in a Las Vegas landscape where hype runs amok. It left me thinking, though, that Google may be getting dangerously near the point of hubris. Because no matter how much contempt you may have for marketing, you can’t cavalierly frustrate users’ expectations too many times without risking some serious damage. Marketing isn’t about duping people. It’s about creating awareness and desire, and then meeting the expectations you’ve set.

Whether it's arrogance or naiveté, Google’s approach to just about everything seems to be “build it and they will come.” You do that once or twice successfully, then start thinking you can do it whenever you want. But not even Google can get away with just half-building something cool like a video store, announcing it, and then basically punking its audience.

You have to wonder--and certainly Googlers will have the data--on how many potential customers hunted around for the Google Video Store and didn't find it. (Google Video is buried under "Labs" half-way down the "More" page.) Or, if they did manage to find it, what their impressions were when they discovered homegrown clips like "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah" and "Fire Fart" instead of CSI, Survivor, NBA, Sony music videos, and the other premium content touted in the press release. CNET's Google Blog drives home the point nicely. Even the Google Video "about page" is amazingly bereft of content; just click on any of TV channels under "Search for programs" and most likely you'll come up with zilch.

With the press primed, Google Video Store got plenty of awareness. But the company threw away the opportunity to create big time desire, (not to mention traffic and revenue), by drawing attention to a half-baked product. Not a smart thing to do, even—or especially—if you’re flush with mega brand strength. Too much is at stake. Google should take off its “do no evil” glasses for a little while and took a look at the Steve Jobs marketing playbook on how to deliver desire.