Google, stuck in the middle

We won’t bore you with predictions of whether Google+, the new me-too social network, will make it. Instead, we’ll suggest Google faces a classic mass-marketing, mainstream-media problem. Branding.

More than 20 years ago Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter wrote the landmark book “Competitive Advantage” (heard the term? the book coined it) and in it he suggested most companies, as they grow, face a classic challenge. They start out as a niche player — a specialist, something that customers can easily pigeonhole in their mind — and then decide to grow. A consulting boutique decides to take on McKinsey; an online bookstore decides to sell all forms of goods. Some companies, such as Peppers & Rogers Group (1to1 consultants), fail to make the transition; others, like (once only online books), leap over the confusion to grow to the next level. Porter suggested the challenge in this transition is to not become “stuck in the middle.”

Stuck in the middle is what happens when you lose your focus, and your correlated customer brand perception of you, and become nothing to no one as you try to grow to the next level. You aren’t perceived as the next big service; yet your customers forget you used to be special. It’s exceedingly difficult to make the leap from specialist to market leader not due to your product-design aptitude, but instead because most consumers don’t give a damn about most products. We all have limited attention spans as customers, and it’s easiest to keep companies, like people, in their place. If you were once known as the maker of Product X, like a girl or guy in high school who gets a bad rap, customers may remember you as That Product X forever.

When a company such as Google, known as the leader in online search, tries to become a social network, human beings get confused. Google+ has hoards of features emulating Facebook, GroupMe, Instagram, and Twitter. So we go hmm. “Where do you fit in this complicated, crowded space?” we ask. We already have locks on where Facebook and Twitter fit. They are snapshots in our mind on the scale of private-to-public, boring-to-fun. Instagram, a newcomer, has rapidly gained traction by carving out a unique position. LinkedIn, the cold porridge of social media, is no fun to visit but you know you need to post your resume there. In the world of communications, specialists rule.

Google+, however, faces a basic challenge. We already know who Google is. Google, we love you, we use you daily … and unfortunately, you’re stuck in the middle.

Bonus points: If you’re not familiar with Michael Porter, get started.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

9 thoughts on “Google, stuck in the middle

  1. Maybe you are right. But there are an awful lot of people who love Google for more than search: email, docs, video, Picasa, etc. And what may come into play is the way this works in the mobile space, where Google and its phones and operating system are making huge headway. Let’s see.

  2. Thanks, Edward. I do think Google faces big challenges as consumers move to small screens, with less visual inventory for search and where push-button apps, such as the ones Mullen is creating, are much more useful.

    Old-school media (circa 2008) is fading fast. See the Quantcast image on Gmail usage I tweeted you. Other readers, go to, punch in, and click on range = all… Gmail use has fallen from 3.5 million monthly U.S. users in June 2007 to 517,000 today. That’s a big drop.

    Media is changing fast, headed for social media and small-glass screens, with an overlay of the mass flat-panel TV screens. I don’t think the dominant players of yesterday are going to win this new space. Evolution has a history of favoring new mutants with new genes.

  3. This caught in the middle notion is like commentary on mobile devices – giving too much advantage to first breakthrough entrants. But disruption of your chart is the name of the game, especially when technology and needs are moving fast. Look at Apple iPhone and Google Android market share reversal. I suspect given the solid goodies there will be a Facebook to Google+ reversal as well.

  4. That’s a good point. I don’t mean to suggest Google can’t grow in the social space, only that it must cross an extremely difficult brand-perception gap to get there. Google climbed up in the mobile space by giving a raft of handset makers a way to compete with Apple, surrounding Apple. I can’t see a similar approach for leaping ahead in social.

  5. Google started with Search. What we need now is Find, Manage, and Interact – and they know it. If they can pull it together and make those tasks easier (with both info and people), they win. My 2 cents on my blog:

  6. Ben – Quantcast stats are estimated and hardly reflect usage. Aside from the fact that they’re a pure guess, they don’t take into account POP or IMAP usage, apps accounts, premier apps accounts, etc.

    Look at last chart here, for example, showing strong growth:

    Interesting thoughts on branding…not sure I agree. Google+ is being rolled out as an overlay across Google products. It doesn’t need to be a destination – and won’t be for many people. But there are deep hooks into SEO, and that by itself will push mass use quickly (if not mass adoption).

  7. I’m also curious to see if Google+ ends up over time simply replacing Google as the platform. That to me seems to be the strategy. It’s not a destination, it’s the social framework for all Google products. A year from now, Google+ won’t “exist” from a brand standpoint, it will be just be Google.

    When/if that happens, the draw to use these social hooks won’t be competitive with FB per se, they will be so convenient that going over to FB will seem hard.

    I’m not saying it’s gonna work, I’m just articulating what I think is the strategy.

  8. Google still holds a competitive advantage in search. It hasn’t lost its focus, but is instead trying to extend its brand into social. Google could connect its search capabilities to social and demonstrate the benefits for users.

    Google+ demonstrates the importance of Facebook as a brand, since Google decided to compete against it. Google, like Avis, must “try harder.”

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