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The Google Box

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By John Grant, Author of 'Made With' (2013) and Brand Consultant

Google are the most meaningful brand in the world. But they are seen in a very one-sided way as a great product. Why can’t people also see they are a great company?

Let’s start with a declaration of interest. Google aren’t a client of mine. And they aren’t paying me to say this. In fact, I have worked for nearly all their rivals and competitors over the years. But nonetheless: I love Google.

Why is that? Because I know they are so much more than a search box.

The person on the street thinks of Google as synonymous with search. Some may have noticed that they also have a browser (Chrome), that they own YouTube, Gmail and Google+. If they read Wired or similar they may also have heard of Google Glass, or Ingress, their virtual reality game, or other such cool stuff. Basically in the public mind Google = Internet. That certainly seems to be the conclusion of the Meaningful Brands analysis I saw Havas Media present this week at the Guardian Activate conference:

 “Google scores are outstanding on improving our well-being with its positive impact on our organisational skills, our intellect, our finances and our social and emotional well-being. However, these high scores drop (to number 61 in the UK) when we look at its impact on our community, the economy, environment, governance and ethics.”

Here’s the actual data that Havas Media showed at the conference for all tech brands, showing Google as a leading example of a general malaise with the IT sector:

Google 1 small
Google 2 small

Google 3 small

If we were talking about Paypal I’d say fair enough.

Google is the “hoover” of internet searches. So it’s natural to think of it as personally useful. But it’s not the Google I know and love.

It’s not the Google that has committed a billion US$ to renewable energy projects. And which made one of the more inspiring contributions to the wave of “ecocorpobabble” with its RE<C (renewable energy cheaper than coal) challenge.

It’s not the Google whose Impact Awards hand out big bursaries and vital exposure to really worthwhile projects like GiveDirectly and Charity:Water.

It’s not the Google who hired Ory the developer of Ushahidi to run their Policy for Africa – or gave a home to tech legends like Ray Kurzweil and Vincent Cerf.

It’s not the Google whose Campus in London hosts 100 startups on any given day and over 60,000 visitors for their amazing programme of events.

It’s not the Google who gives any of their employees 20% of their time to spend on pet projects.

And it’s not the Google who constantly pops up in my research into smart cities, the eco benefits of cloud computing, employee green schemes and so on. As a real leader in developing tomorrow’s society, economy and sustainability.

No they aren’t perfect.

Some (like Julian Assange from Wikileaks) see Google as an example of a US State Department/Silicon Valley axis of evil. Part of the new cohort of American State hegemony. Others also point the finger, be it for Antitrust, tax avoidance, censoring in China or (more on this later) snooping for the NSA.

Google have taken a particular bashing in the UK, where tabloid media have gone after stories like burglars using Google Streetview, or the Google chief comms person being married to a Cameron aide, as if Google were some kind of ‘evil corporation’. Whatever element of truth there is to those stories it does seem as if being a ‘Large American Corporation’ creates an attractive target in itself?

Back to all those plus points. Most large companies can find a few nice stories for their annual report. But with Google people (the ones I have met) you feel like you are dealing with a human being; smarter than most people you meet, but free from the taint of corporatism, arrogance or narrowness I’d associate with many of their competitors, or large companies in general. You occasionally meet really nice people working for bad companies. But the more people you meet from Google, the more it just seems likely to be quite a lovely place to work.

Google also has the vision. It really does have a sense of a company that believes it can do a bit of good for humanity, and not too much harm. And this is written into its company culture as the famous explicit ethos: “Don’t be evil”. The founders even wrote a letter to investors in 2004 to explain why:

“Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating. We also display advertising, which we work hard to make relevant, and we label it clearly. This is similar to a well-run newspaper, where the advertisements are clear and the articles are not influenced by the advertisers’ payments. We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see.”

Obviously that’s a bold claim and it has got them into trouble at times – for instance over those claims they are (following Chinese government policy, up until 2010) censoring. And there are a lot of questions about data privacy.

When the NSA Prism story broke, Google’s legal counsel pointed out:

“Now, what does happen is that we get specific requests from the government for user data. We review each of those requests and push back when the request is overly broad or doesn’t follow the correct process. There is no free-for-all, no direct access, no indirect access, no back door, no drop box.”

Which is a lot less than was claimed in the original reports on PRISM. Google also pointed out that every government request is detailed in their http://www.google.com/transparencyreport/ And they have asked the US government to disclose how many of these were FISA (the US surveillance court) related - presumably because the answer is not that many.

Anyway it turns out that the public at large isn’t too bothered either way. (It’s perhaps almost reassuring from a tabloid, alarmist perspective that the government are “snooping” on “suspected terrorists” and “Chinese cyber threats” and other such bogeymen?) And it raises none of the privacy and personal data concerns of more immediate issues like identity theft (or lost disks of tax records on trains). I’m not saying privacy isn’t an issue. Or snooping. I’m just saying it doesn’t seem to be that much of a public issue, for better or worse.

But conversely the public don’t seem to think Google makes a positive net impact on society, the economy and environment. To repeat the latest research from Havas Media “these high scores drop (to number 61 in the UK) when we look at its impact on our community, the economy, environment, governance and ethics.”

I think that’s a travesty.

There are companies I’ve worked with (IKEA, Virgin, innocent, Body Shop, Natura Cosmetics…) who genuinely see themselves as here to improve everyday life, today and tomorrow. They aren’t just ethical, they are spirited. People don’t remove their personality or values at reception. Google strikes me as one of those authentic, mission driven companies. Not perfect. But on the right side of history. And yet they score low on those measures. And at the same time the feudal, farmer-screwing, ‘freshly flown from somewhere poor’ (I’m generalizing to make the point) UK supermarkets score top on exactly those same measures.

Why is this?

Firstly Google are acting in the great tradition (lampooned by Harry Enfield’s DJ characters Smashy & Nicey) of “doing a lot for charity, but don’t like to talk about it”. I don’t see M&S investing a billion in renewable energy (or even in their bloody open fridges) but they’ve not been shy to push their “Plan A”, “Look Behind the Label” and other branded halo schemes. Yes I do think it’s a good thing to see leading brands setting an example. It’s brilliant the Walmarts of this world have gone publically green. But Google are actively involved in energy, cities, infrastructure – big solutions – not just packaging and tweaking.

Secondly because weirdly Google are seen as uber American rather than global. We half think of Ford cars, or Coca-Cola as native brands. Even Apple. But the internet stars are pictured (perhaps because of all the economic news about their success) as supremely American. We think of them as companies over there (big data centres) providing a service over here. No wonder the tax thing really stuck to Google and Amazon, if we think of them as offshore, almost already like tax exiles. What about Vodafone? Or Barclays? Or Shell? (Whose brand is owned by a “shell company” with a handful of employees based in Switzerland). It’s something like the “overpaid and over here” complaints about US soldiers in WWII (the other one that always gets mentioned is Starbucks). In other words isn’t it possible that there’s a bit of Yankee-envy mixed into all of this?

Thirdly because there is no realm of branding more subject to emotion, half-truths and irrational prejudices than corporate brands. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great company making a real difference, if they don’t have a green coin scheme linked to local charities, or nice pictures of farmers, or knitted-effect packaging, then we don’t feel they are close to people, conscious or authentic.

And fourthly Google are science and technology based. We are afraid of the future. And afraid of industries that bring it to us. There are technologies where that is not misplaced. But I’d personally put Google’s contribution to history closer to ‘the invention of printing’ (than for instance ‘the creation of Frankenstein foods’).

What can Google do about it?

I don’t think it’s a case of creating a corporate comms budget to try and resolve the imbalance of perception. There is so much danger in saying “we’re the good guys” (Beyond Petroleum, anybody?). Even if you are the good guys (which relative to other energy players, John Brown’s BP certainly were in the 1990s).

Google might keep an eye out for public myth making moments – like Red Bull Stratos or my personal favourites IBM’s Deep Blue (chess match against Gary Kasparov), not to mention the Guinness Book of Records. Yes Google Glass is cool, but it’s quite not a decade defining leap for mankind?

Or best of all, get people inside The Google World. Become like a country with citizens. Create something – be it a new World Bank we all give $1 to – something we can all build and own together. We all work for Google everyday (Google gets its data from our websites, our backlinks, and makes advertising revenue from our searches?). Why don’t we just formalize things a bit? So few companies could do this. But Google could. If they got out of their box, that is.

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