Branding and marketing the Google way: insights from “I’m Feeling Lucky” by Douglas Edwards

Douglas Edwards was employee number 59 at Google, hired in 1999 when the search company was still in start-up mode. His book, I’m Feeling Lucky: the Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, covers the most dramatic years of Google’s growth from the perspective of someone who was both an insider and yet, oddly, also an outsider within the company. Edwards was a marketing guy in an organization where engineers and computer scientists rule. Established  branding and marketing practices were just one more thing Google’s founders thought they could set aside or reinvent as part of their ambitious drive to create a truly new and different kind of business.

Early on, Edwards discovered how much disdain Larry Page and Sergey Brin had for banner ads, busy portal-style landing pages, and especially the lavish Super Bowl TV ads that had become a badge of success for many dot-com companies. An early lesson came when Sergey suggested, in all seriousness, “Why don’t we take the marketing budget and use it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera. It will help our brand awareness and we’ll get more new people to use Google.” While the Chechen refugee idea didn’t turn out to be practicable, Sergey’s larger point was clear: his proposal was no less valid than any other branding strategy because marketing is unscientific – and Google wasn’t interested in spending money on anything that couldn’t demonstrate measurable results.

With the perspective of hindsight, Google’s triumph over other search engines seems inevitable, but at the time Edwards joined the company, Inktomi and AltaVista were the giants of search, and Ask Jeeves looked like a strong contender just because its brand was so well-defined. One great anecdote in the book involves Edwards trying to explain the value of branding to Google’s founders: “In a world where all search engines are equal, we’ll need to rely on branding to differentiate us from everyone else,” he told them. Larry Page’s answer speaks volumes: “If we can’t win on quality, we shouldn’t win at all.”

Edwards got the message, and went on to draft some guiding principles for the Google brand strategy:

  • PR and word of mouth work better than ads.
  • Paid ads work against our brand. Focus on the “joy of discovery.”
  • We’ll grow faster getting current users to search more than by mass marketing.
  • All our promotions must include a way to measure success.
  • Product interaction is, and must remain, the primary branding experience.
  • User retention efforts should center on improving UI and user support.

In other words: the user experience is the brand.

Edwards found that one significant way he could contribute was through copy-writing. He developed what he came to think of as “the Google voice”:

Douglas Edwards

Douglas Edwards

“I began writing copy for the site as if the person reading it were a friend. I added Simpsons references to our FAQs, made puns in our newsletter, and, after engineer Amit Patel confessed a love of prosimians and their googley eyes, started including lemurs in all my examples. (“I don’t want anyone to know I’m into lemur racing. Is my information private?”) It made my job a lot more fun, but also made it clear that an actual human being had touched the page the user was reading.”

He also helped formulate an important position on product naming and branding: “Do you give a product a new name that suggests it’s completely separate from your core business? Do you incorporate your primary brand name to show that it’s equal to, but distinct from, your existing product? Or do you simply use a generic term to describe it so that it becomes just another service you offer, rather than a distinct product that stands alone?” The decision was to put all brand equity in the Google name – a strategy that Google has followed fairly consistently, with the introduction of major services (Google News, Google Image Search, Google Maps) under the overarching Google brand rather than as stand-alone products. As Edwards saw early on, this approach “adds credibility to new services and ensures that all achievements accrue to the benefit of the Google brand.” Instances where Google has tried to create stand-alone brands (Froogle, Orkut) only seem to prove the value of sticking to the overarching brand strategy.

I’m Feeling Lucky is a likeable book, in large part because Edwards is humble and humorous about being odd man out as a forty-something arts major in a data-driven company dominated by brilliant young engineers. With admirable honesty, he recounts stories from the early days, when his traditional thinking about branding turned out to be completely wrong. (E.g., he initially opposed the idea of Google Doodles because tampering with your logo violated every orthodox idea about branding at the time.) And he throws in a few delighters, including the glossary at the end of the book, where you’ll find definitions such as:

Nontrivial: A euphemism for “impossible.” Since engineers are not going to admit anything is impossible, they use this word instead. When an engineer says something is “nontrivial,” it’s the equivalent of an airline pilot calmly saying you may encounter “just a bit of turbulence” as he flies you into a Category 5 hurricane.

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