16 Feb 2015

How Elastic Is Your Brand?

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The announcement this week that Google is partnering with the European drug maker Novartis to develop a ‘smart contact lens,’ which allows diabetics to monitor glucose levels without the pesky pin-prick, raised some eyebrows in the marketing world. It begs the question:  Just how far can Google stretch its brand?

Some of you might be a bit too young, but remember when Google used to be just about search? Search was their business, and they became damn good at it, becoming the Scotch tape of search in no time flat.

But that was then. Fast forward through Gmail, Google Alerts, Google Maps, Google Docs, Chrome, AdWords and AdSense, Google Calendar, Google Blogger, Google Mobile, iGoogle, Google Talk, Google Groups and Google Music.

And those are just the ones you probably know. Don’t forget some newer offerings:  Google Cars (a search engine for car quotes), Google Chromebook (a computer pre-loaded with … guess what?), Google Drive (free cloud storage), Google Fiber (a broadband internet network), and Google Hangouts (a way to upload photos, emoji and make free group video calls).

And then there are those intriguing products on the horizon arising from the semi-secret Google X facility. The now well-known Project Glass, otherwise known as the ‘augmented reality head mounted display,’ came out of this facility. Engineers at Google X are also hard at work on a driverless car, a project called Loon (a network of balloons flying through the stratosphere providing internet access to those in remote locations).

At first blush, the long list of Google products (there are over a hundred, and counting), seems somewhat, well … random. As if any idea was a good idea.

It turns out, however, that not every idea panned out.

Remember Google TV? It allowed advertisers to place ads on television networks, and hung on five years before the company pulled the plug. Google Catalogs, a search engine for over 6,500 print catalogs, was pulled in 2009. You probably never tried Google Answers, a short-lived service that allowed users to post cash bounties for well-research answers to their difficult queries. And you may never have dialed up GOOG-411, a directory assistance service accessed from any telephone in the U.S. and Canada.

Which brings us to the topic at hand. From its inception, Google’s founders continually sought to stretch the brand to categories further and further away from the search space, testing the credible boundaries of the Google brand. In short, the founders were seeing how much the Google brand could be stretched without making its new offerings appear in consumers’ eyes to be … too much of a stretch.

At its simplest, the Google brand established itself quite early as a digital connector. In the beginning, it connected people with what they were searching for on the internet. Later, it stretched the notion of ‘connector’ to include email and mobile offerings. It broadened this positioning further by stretching the brand into the document sharing and web browsing space. And through products like Google Music and Google Cars, it connected people with vast online sources of music and automobiles. Google’s acquisition of YouTube made perfect sense because it was consistent with its core brand strength – in this case connecting people with an endless array of digital video content.

Google’s successes tapped into the brand’s strengths, while its failures were – with the benefit of hindsight – decidedly ‘off brand.’ Google TV took the company to the traditional media world, which was in the opposite direction of where its core consumers were migrating. Its attempt to connect consumers with print catalogs, or connect traditional telephones with directory assistance, once again took the brand beyond the digital world it ruled.

Its experimental products looming on the horizon will test Google’s brand elasticity even further. Google Glass, the new ‘augmented reality head-mounted display’ product, seems to be a perfect fit with Google’s ‘digital connector’ positioning. Likewise, Project Loon, the network of far-flung internet access balloons, stretches the brand in the right direction.

But how will consumers perceive a Google driverless car? If there’s a disconnect between the attributes that most consumers demand from an automobile – safety, comfort and performance – there’s a danger that Google may be trying to stretch its brand too far beyond its digital connector core strength.

Google’s foray into the aforementioned ‘smart contact lens’ for diabetics shows that, sometimes, in order to stretch your brand you need a little help. Even though Google could argue that the notion of ‘connecting’ diabetics with real-time glucose readings matches its core strength, the partnership with Novartis brings crucial credibility from a brand well known in the medical field. Sometimes, stretching your brand requires a little co-branding help.

So the next time the thought leaders in your company tee up a new product or service, it may not be a bad idea to revisit what your brand’s core strength is and how the new gizmo leverages the strength or departs from it.

And maybe you’ll even be so bold as to create a ‘Google X’ laboratory of your own, even if the ‘laboratory’ is an offsite brainstorming session where you test how far your brand can credibly be stretched given its core strengths.

You might be surprised just how elastic your brand might be.