Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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Google and Branding

Wednesday, March 5, 2003
by Mark Hurst

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By now you may have heard of the study that proclaimed Google to be "brand of the year." Above Coke. This is for a company that is less than 10 years old, with no advertising firm, and almost no visual elements anywhere on its site.

Whatever happened to the naming firms that named every company to end in "nt" (Viant, Scient, Sapient, Lucent, etc.)? Whatever happened to the branding firms that would copy and paste an arc or a swoosh and call it a logo? Whatever happened to ad firms that would pay $20 million for 30 seconds during the Super Bowl and declare victory (despite the horrible website the ad pointed users to)? In short, what happened to all the old ways of building a brand?

Google has done none of these things. Instead, it has focused on the EXPERIENCE. The user experience, customer experience, searcher experience, whatever you want to call it - Google knows that online, the brand is the EXPERIENCE. Good experience, good brand. Bad experience, out of business.

I'm not suggesting that every site look and feel like Google. Rather, I'm trying to point out that Google's "secret sauce" is its insistence on creating a good experience for its users at every opportunity, on every page. There are other sites that create a good experience that look nothing like Google. Here's one example.

This is CBC's online special on Congo: its people, culture, history, and economy. Full of graphics and sound and Shockwave and all sorts of technology, it looks nothing like Google. And my visit there was a good experience. How do I know? Because it was engaging; because I learned something; because the site provided all this without any other distractions, without selling out to any other interests. In short, the site provided the user experience it promised, and I wanted: getting a glimpse of the Congo. I can't remember the logo or color scheme of the site, but I do remember the African pictures and sounds I saw and heard. The "brand" of this site, in my mind, is defined solely by the experience I had there.

How good is the experience your company creates for its users? Remember that it all hinges there: Experience good, brand good. That means revenues good, company good, job security good.

Experience bad, company out of business sooner or later. (Unless it's a monopoly.)

- Counterpoints -

To be fair, while I firmly believe in my thesis that the experience is the brand, it may be best not to get over-excited about the "brand of the year" study. Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. The study was run by and involved 1,300 readers naming which brand had "the most impact on their lives" in 2002. As a Web-based audience, opting in to this survey, these respondents were self-selected for people who use the Web a lot. Look at the rest of the winners and you'll see what brands these Websters like to use: Apple, Coke, Starbucks, Ikea, Nike, Nokia, BMW,...

2. Apple came in a very close second place in the survey. I happen to be a fan of Apple, but for different reasons. Apple's website is good, but not excellent - not to Google's standards. So how did Apple come in second? Its product, of course. Supplemented by its "switch" ad campaign - the best around, in my opinion - Macintosh computers provide a better overall user experience than Windows PCs. My point is that a good product, with good advertising, can still work to create a strong brand. And a good product is just another version of a good user experience.

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