Google takes its first bite of the Apple

[Originally published on 6/1/10 on the Greenlight blog here]

So, less than a month after filing the trademark application for the ‘Nexus One’, Google has launched its first hardware retail product direct to consumers and starts a direct assault on Apple’s dominance of the mobile sector. This is a great example of ‘speed to market’ from the most over-exposed brand on the planet launching a product in the most over-exposed global consumer market. In fact, the only other brand that has shown that it can operate as effectively as this is, er… Apple.

Google is breaking new ground by becoming a direct retailer of this handset. It suggests that they will be braver than Microsoft in entering the PC hardware retail space. Can we therefore expect this year a Google laptop running their Chrome PC operating system to rival the much rumoured Apple tablet (due possibly in Q1 2010)?

The question we should be asking ourselves as marketers is: what kind of promotional opportunities and threats are likely to arise from Google managing not just the search space but the operating system, software and hardware as well as, it seems, the retail consumer relationship for these products?

The short-term opportunities are abundant.  Tracking could include non-web-based activity such as emailing, gaming, even potentially working, giving markets the chance to deploy behavioural targeting in a far more comprehensive way than previously imagined by web-only systems such as Phorm. It will encourage brands to follow the path shown by the iPhone application development revolution by launching Apps that demonstrate the usefulness of their brand rather than being limited to shouting the loudest about the attractiveness of their products.

However, in the long-term, the impact on the marketing landscape may prove extremely disruptive. Brands will be able to get closer to users than ever before, leaping from the web page into the software and operating system. This has obvious advantages for brands with products that are directly relevant to this environment such as software and hardware providers but for others it adds to the increasing pressure to make their products relevant to the digital user environment. How does a soft-drinks manufacturer or fashion retailer squeeze their message into the closed environment of day-to-day PC user activity as potentially owned by Google (or Apple or perhaps even Microsoft!)?

Just as relevance is a key ingredient in achieving success in search marketing today, brands are increasingly going to have to contrive ways to be relevant to users’ everyday digital activity that remind them of their products’ key attributes and brand values. Relying on users finding your brand on a website or search results page may no longer be enough as Google wraps itself around users giving them every reason not to look beyond the data and toolset it can provide.

The importance, then, of brands will be paramount but it may be a type of branding we are not used to. To get close to and stay close to consumers, brands will have to be useful not just attractive. They may have to find ways to partner with consumers to help them achieve things that are not relevant to the core product set of the brand. For example, a beer brand may help you get the album or concert ticket you were looking for by giving you prioritised access or even subsidising the download cost. A high street bank may provide user access to sophisticated budget planning or tax applications (or subsidising access to third party applications).

The problem here is that users will only tolerate this degree of ‘closeness’ from a very small number of chosen brands. Google may well be one of these and they may help to package up brand relationships to provide ranges of data and functionality to suit different user groups. However, it is highly likely that far fewer brands will ever achieve this level of intimacy and permission from users which inevitably suggests either massive brand consolidation or a fairly brutal hierarchy of partner brands versus the rest.

How will your brand position itself to users behind the Google walled garden?