Google Buzz didn’t get permission, but it also didn’t get brand permission

You’ve probably seen at least one of the 9 zillion articles written over the last week about Google Buzz. The feedback from the public has been, well… kinda ugly. There are plenty of articles and blogs analyzing problems with the Buzz launch around user privacy, opt in vs. opt out, and that kind of thing, so I won’t rehash those arguments.

Bumblebee sez: yo Google, you really should have asked first!

In this post, we’ll look at the brand mistake Google made in how they launched Buzz.

This article from the San Francisco Chronicle website about a class action lawsuit filed against Google caught my eye because of the following paragraph:

Google turned Gmail “into a social networking service and that’s not what they signed up for, Google imposed that on them without getting their consent,” said Kimberly Nguyen, consumer privacy counsel with EPIC of Washington, D.C.

That sentence is a great articulation of why Buzz is a classic case of not securing brand permission, a subject I have covered here and here.

To be of any value, a brand must create meaning in people’s minds. People associate certain terms or ideas with that brand. If you want to see a awesome experiment in brand meaning, check out the Brand Tags site.

When you visit this site, it immediately shows you a random brand and asks you to type in the first thing that pops into your head. Once you’ve tagged a few brands with some meaning, the site lets you go search a list of tag clouds visualizing the brand meaning people associate with familiar companies (yes, totally addictive).

As an example, I looked up IKEA. The biggest words in the IKEA tag cloud were cheap, furniture, design, Sweden, crap, and meatballs.

Sounds about right to me.

Cool, huh? It’s not only an interesting experiment, it’s a quick and dirty way to see the places a brand has already gained “permission” to go. Where it has created meaning and where it has not.

So back to Google. Here are ten of the top tags in the Google tag cloud: search, smart, information, useful, God, find, evil, awesome, big brother, cool.

Again, sounds about right to me.

But when I looked at the Google tag cloud, out of the hundreds of concepts that people had tagged Google with, everything from “overlord” to “omniscient,” “all-knowing” to “your friend,” I saw no mentions of social networking or any social networking concepts at all. Zero. And Gmail, if it had a tag cloud, would probably have one word bigger than all the others: email.

Remember the quote above. People didn’t sign up for Gmail as a social networking service, they signed up for it as an email service.

Neither the Google nor the Gmail brand had secured brand permission to enter the social networking space. For most people, Google basically = search and Gmail = email.

Facebook = social networking. Linked in = social networking. Twitter = social networking. Heck, even Toastmasters = social networking. But not Google.

Fortunately, all is not yet lost. There will be some clean up on aisle Buzz, but my guess is that over time, Google will find a way to successfully enter the social networking space, whether with the Buzz brand or another brand acquired or created from scratch. After all, the one other prominent word people added to the Google tag cloud that I didn’t mention before?


Sounds about right to me.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


3 thoughts on “Google Buzz didn’t get permission, but it also didn’t get brand permission

  1. I think you’re right on target here. If there is anything – in my opinion – that will cause Google to falter it is an arrogant “we know better than you, trust us” attitude to user privacy. The bigger they get, the more permission they will require when it comes to the stats they make so much money selling.

    Posted by Bruce DeBoer | February 24, 2010, 8:15 pm


  1. Pingback: Google Buzz didn’t get permission! « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides - February 19, 2010

  2. Pingback: Facebook breaks the brand permission rules « Dark Matter Matters - May 13, 2010

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