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Alphabet explained: Why Google Inc. changed its identity


Alphabet explained: Why Google Inc. changed its identity


Mark Razzell explains some reasoning behind Google Inc’s change in identity to Alphabet, by looking back into the company’s troubled relationship with the public’s take on its name.

When I was just a mini-Razzell in my first year of high school, there was a young gentleman in my year who had an unfortunate incident. This was obviously devastating for his social standing, and he was forever to be known by those who recalled the incident as ‘the guy who wet himself’. Never mind the fact that he went on to become quite a decent footballer, or that he was top of our year in maths. Whenever he did something and news travelled, the following statement of the recipient was ‘what, the guy who wet himself?’ Now, I’m not equating Google’s roots to an embarrassing social situation, but I am saying that Google, now Alphabet, are trying to shake off its inherent association with search.

What’s led to this?

Google was born in 1996 as BackRub, with the name change occurring in 1997. By 2000, they started to become the company we know today and, before long, became the go-to search engine for most people. What’s interesting is that, very early on, Google started to diversify from just search and made their intent clear as early as 2003 (when they introduced AdWords and starting making serious cash) by branching into other areas. An old school article from the BBC in 2003 covers Google’s first tantrums about the use of Google as a verb, i.e. synonymous with ‘search’:

“Paul McFedries, who runs the lexicography site Word Spy, received a stiffly worded letter from the firm after he added “google” to his online lexicon.

The company asked him to delete the definition or revise it to take account of the “trade mark status of Google”. He opted for the latter.”

Google continued to fight this, but in 2006 it appeared the battle was lost, with ‘Google’ being added to Merriam-Webster as a verb. Did Google finally recognise the futility of their efforts? Nope. They released a stampy-footed blog post insisting that people don’t use ‘Google’ in place of search.

 “While we’re pleased that so many people think of us when they think of searching the web, let’s face it, we do have a brand to protect, so we’d like to make clear that you should please only use ‘Google’ when you’re actually referring to Google Inc. and our services.”

The blog post goes on to suggest examples of the appropriate and inappropriate uses of the word:

Usage: ‘Google’ as verb referring to searching for information on, um, Google.

Example: ‘I googled him on the well-known website Google.com and he seems pretty interesting.’

Our lawyers say: Well, we’re happy at least that it’s clear you mean searching on Google.com. As our friends at Merriam-Webster note, to ‘Google’ means ‘to use the Google search engine to find information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web.’

Usage: ‘Google’ as verb referring to searching for information via any conduit other than Google.

Example: ‘I googled him on Yahoo and he seems pretty interesting.’

Our lawyers say: Bad. Very, very bad. You can only ‘Google’ on the Google search engine. If you absolutely must use one of our competitors, please feel free to ‘search’ on Yahoo or any other search engine.”

So why, at this point, did Google not just say, “balls to it” and suck it up? Well, they were acquiring companies all over the place, and they were doing so in avenues that were beginning to show their ambitions; software, 3D modelling, mapping, analytics, etc. However, their ability to do this was financially backed by the stock markets trust in the ‘Google’ brand. To change then would have confused investors and potentially led to collapse.

For other companies, take Hoover for example, having your brand name being used in place of the product/activity is a great thing. For Google, not so much, because they had major diversification ambitions early on. Their primary product offering, search and advertising (representing about 97% of income), was clearly a financial vehicle for bigger and better things. It became a problem around 2013, when they started heavily investing in robotics and advanced AI. Never mind that they’d been branching out for years, this was the catalyst. The internet went bonkers, asking, ‘why is a company that does search investing in robots!? OMG it’s Skynet!’ For a company whose slogan is ‘do no evil’, this mistrust from the public is obviously problematic. Clearly, Google saw this coming, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do anything about it. Until now.

Why the change?

They’ve recognised that Google equals search and there’s not a damn thing they can do about that. The parent company, formerly Google now Alphabet, has significant focus in areas totally unrelated to search and advertising. Take Calico, which focuses on extending life (seriously), or their driverless cars and ISP offerings (Fibre).

Of course, Google is still the biggest aspect of Alphabet, but it makes no sense for Calico to sit under Google when everyone thinks ‘Google equals search’. If anything, that’s damaging to their primary product offering, because it promotes mistrust and lacks clarity to investors. Regardless of your thoughts and feelings about Alphabet as a brand choice, the intent is clear; the vast product offering of Alphabet will cover the letters A to Z. Hence why the blog post announcing the change was titled ‘G is for Google’.

What are the dangers?

We’ve seen failed rebrand attempts in the past and a quick ‘Google’ will give you plenty of insight in to this. But, considering what history has taught us, what does Google have to worry about?

  • The public doesn’t adapt. Ultimately, this shouldn’t really matter. Google is search and always will be. However, if people continue to use Google in place of the parent company, for example, “Google has just acquired a company that build death bots”, then they might have a problem, but typically this information filters down from paid media. If journalists don’t use ‘Alphabet’, you can guarantee they’ll have change orders thrown at them almost immediately by the legal army (not team, which would be too soft).
  • Stock plummets. This shouldn’t really be an issue, considering that Google stock rose 4.1% following the announcement. The aim isn’t to make Alphabet a consumer brand, but rather give greater clarity on future investments. Those who invest in Alphabet are betting on Google, Calico, Fibre, etc., all of which have demonstrable success. Those who invest solely in Google are just getting search, which is a behemoth looking unlikely to be displaced.
  • Rebranding sucks up too much cash. A common problem during rebrands, which is further exacerbated if it fails. Reversing a rebrand costs almost as much as the exercise itself. Considering that their first quarter revenue was 17.3 billion, up 12% year on year, I think they’ll probably be alright.

So what’s likely to happen?

For you and I? Probably nothing. It won’t impact marketers’ day-to-day dealings with Google, anyway. For those who get embroiled with Alphabet’s other product offerings, it will just mean you’re working with a subsidiary of Alphabet as opposed to Google.

Ultimately, I think this is a pretty shrewd move by the chiefs of what is now Alphabet. It will protect their primary product offering from the fickle malcontent of users, and it sends a clear message to investors; it’s making its other products viable and profitable by seceding from the Google brand.

Should they have done it sooner? Perhaps, but they’ve spent many years creating a global behemoth that seems almost impossible to displace. Had they done it sooner, it might have failed, but now they’re so intrinsically viable as a company that they could call themselves the ‘dancing monkey hamburger group’ and it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. I’m probably going a bit far there, but you get my point. Alphabet makes sense and I’m sure someone was paid far too much to come up with it.


Mark Razzell

Mark Razzell is strategic planner at Zuni.

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