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1.17.2006 

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.
-PR

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