The topic of Google’s brand value emerged recently when Millward Brown’s Brandz, which publishes an annual ranking of the “top 100” global brands by value (according to their formulation), announced that Apple had surpassed Google to claim the #1 spot, ending the search giant’s four-year reign as the world’s most valuable brand (sample coverage here and here). According to the report, Apple’s brand is now worth $153 billion to Google’s $111 billion. 

The report also noted that a new brand had entered the top 100: Facebook, which debuted at the 35th spot with a brand value of $19.1 billion. Perhaps more significant, the reported year-over-year growth rate of Facebook’s brand value was #1, at 246%. Compare with Apple, up 84%, and Google, down 2%. 

Of course, the significance of these ratings is debatable, but one thing is clear: Google’s competitors have put its brand in the cross-hairs, especially Facebook, which acknowledges hiring PR firm Burson-Marsteller to run a negative PR campaign against Google by persuading top news outlets and bloggers to stir up controversy against Google’s privacy practices by highlighting a Gmail feature called Social Circle, which allows Gmail users to make social connections across other Google products. (USA Today broke the story here, without naming Facebook, and CNet filled in some details.) 

Google, for its part, has hardly been neglecting its brand. In fact, it recently launched what advertising folks would call a “pure brand” campaign – a TV ad that aligns Google with a highly charged emotional cause: the It Gets Better project, a gay social support movement started by Dan Savage. The Google ad, which features the tagline, “the web is what you make of it,” positions Chrome as the platform for social change. Watch it here.

This campaign initiative strikes me as significant on many levels. First, we should acknowledge that it shows a suprising degree of courage on Google’s part to choose such an emotional topic to associate with its brand. Then, it’s interesting that the spotlight is on Chrome rather than Google itself. Other Google products and brands (notably YouTube) play supporting roles, but Chrome is out front. It’s also interesting that Chrome is being symbolically associated with the idealism of the web itself as an open place where people are empowered to start movements – and watch them spread across the globe. It’s a youth-oriented message of liberation, timed to coincide with Google’s announcement of the Chromebook, coming in June

The promotion of Chrome as an emotional centerpiece of the Google brand must be considered a risky strategy. Not only does it depart from the idea that Google itself should be the main subject of any “pure branding” efforts, but the status of Chrome (and Chrome OS in particular) within Google is conflicted by Google’s association with Android, as was evident at Google I/O.  Here’s a take on this, via Moconews: “Google’s Mixed Message On The Future of Mobile Computing:” 

> “In short, the entire mobile app versus mobile Web debate is playing out within one company.” 

Good branding is, first and foremost, about creating clarity. This is hard to do when internal strategy is murky. Given the aggressiveness of Google’s competitors, brand clarity is even more essential, and more important to insulate from product issues. 

As industry analysts focus on Google’s technology and business moves, we must remember that Google above all requires trust to succeed, and its brand is its most valuable and vulnerable asset. Both Apple and Facebook are, in their own ways, positioned as alternatives to the open web. The open web itself has branding issues related to privacy controversies, child safety, and so forth. Will Google bet its brand on the web? Should it?

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