Opinion

You can’t buy a Google, so can you even call it a brand?

Now Screen CEO Mark Silcocks doesn't believe Google is a brand. He therefore has a problem with its first place ranking in the 2018's World's Most Valuable Brands survey.

The biggest surprise about 2018’s “World’s Most Valuable Brands” was not that Google lost the crown to Amazon, but that anyone in marketing ever thought Google was a brand.

It’s a company all right. A massive, highly successful, half a trillion dollar company (aka Alphabet, the holding company) and all credit to them – no-one could detract from Google’s phenomenal corporate success.

But a brand?

There are hundreds of different definitions and interpretations of what a brand is, but one thing’s fundamental: people generally have to be willing to hand over some of their hard-earned, cold hard cash to purchase its products or services.

That’s the whole point.

A brand is something you trust enough to buy and ideally trust so much that, in a competitive market, you’ll pay extra for this particular one. That’s what brand equity is: the value inherent in the appeal of one brand over another brand or product.

So a true brand like Kit Kat gives Nestle a net worth that is much higher than a company which just manufactures chocolate bars, because of the inherent value in the name Kit Kat: the trust consumers imbue in that brand name and their propensity to keep buying it regardless of who owns it or makes it or even if the product form changes.

Brand Finance, the “strategic consultancy” which conducted the “World’s Most Valuable Brands” survey, admits as much by basing their rankings on an estimate of the “economic benefit the company owner would achieve by licensing its brand.”

But you can’t buy a Google. You can’t touch it. There’s no-one to talk to. There’s no tangible product, certainly none that’s stood the test of time against serious competition. There were the glasses, but they flopped. There’s the car, but that tends to be more experimental than marketable – Google might develop some software, but it’ll probably end up in someone else’s car, just like most Chromebooks are badged with other brand names.

Google phones. Does anyone actually own one? (The best guestimate [Google doesn’t reveal numbers], is that it took eight months to sell between 1-2m Pixels; and according to Forbes, 1 million iPhones are sold every day.) Google Home – grabbing some early adopters, but under threat from Amazon’s Alexa or much more trusted hardware brands like Sonos or Apple HomePod. Google Maps? Just another freebie.

And therein lies the rub, and it’s the same fault line that continually rocks the very foundations of the internet itself: so much of it is free. If you don’t pay for something, you never really value it. Trying to make people value something that has always been free is very, very hard, as legacy media moguls are discovering in the digital age.

Google’s more like air. It’s just there. Things work because of it. But if everything worked just as well without it, you wouldn’t miss it.

Do its advertisers prove Google is something people will pay for? Not really. It’s a listings service, not a brand.

No different to that other great money-spinner before it, Yellow Pages, and just as replaceable. In 2005, Yellow Pages publisher Sensis was worth $12 billion. By 2014 it was bought for the equivalent of $648 million. Today you’d be hard pressed to “license” the Yellow Pages “brand” for anything.

The other key quality of a brand is it’s something that inspires loyalty in its consumers. It’s a badge of honour which people will defend and even stand by when things get tough. We know brands are made by companies, but whether it’s a corporate brand like Cadbury or a product brand like M&M’s, brands take on mythical qualities that transcend the corporations and the people who run them.

From New York to London, M&M’s World continues to draw in visitors from around the globe

Witness Perrier containing benzene, which actually poisoned people back in 1990 and, more recently, VW cheating diesel emissions tests. Each time consumers found it in their hearts to excuse those brands, both of which continued to thrive.

Where’s that loyalty towards Google? As its founders were once the first to admit, they are one click away from disappearing altogether if a smarter, faster more accurate search engine came along.

How can we be so sure? Because not long ago, Yahoo was similarly pervasive and all it took was one click for them to all but disappear too.

So no, I’m not so sure Google is a proven brand yet, certainly not in the way a brand like Virgin can apply its DNA to a myriad of white label products and services and instantly increase their value. Or a brand like Lego, which has stood the test of time in a highly competitive, continually shifting market, and is still able to charge a huge premium for what are essentially little bits of plastic.

Of course, Google’s high-achieving founders, owners or employees, seem more focused on data collection and growing ad revenue than selling products anyway.

It is, however, symptomatic of the confusion around what a brand truly is, that we proclaimed Google the most valuable brand before anyone thought to ask if it even was one.

Mark Silcocks is CEO of Now Screen.

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