musings on branding

Something I’ve said often is that if one were to re-package and re-market a core library services today (*cough* reference), they would be in demand. In fact, one might argue it has been, and we call it “Google.” The problem isn’t that the community doesn’t recognize the value of information services–the problem is that it’s hard to distill and eliminate outdated associations that people have in their minds when they think of libraries. Those associations are typically positive, but they tend to bring about more nostalgia than thoughts of utility for those who haven’t visited a library in ages or aren’t aware of current library trends.

The New York Times published an article today about Bing’s continued campaign to toppled Google as the top search engine. It discusses their attempt to make Bing the best “decision engine” in the whole wide web. The idea seeks to be that better searches will result in better share. One developer on Microsoft’s team is quoted as saying: “Search is still essentially a Web site finder. It’s all nouns. But the future of search is verbs — computationally discerning user intent to give them the knowledge to complete tasks.”

However, I find myself unconvinced that Bing will be able to accomplish its task on a better search engine alone. I’m not even sure that people would necessarily judge Google as the best, nor do I think it needs to be. Why? Because Google offers more than just a good search engine. They offer a brand that people want to align themselves with. To be with Google is to be “hip” and “in the know.” It’s part of a lifestyle. While people may not completely believe the old mantra of “Don’t Be Evil,” enough look forward to annual traditions like its April Fools’ pranks (my favorite is Gmail Paper – “It’s paper, plain and easy. I sometimes find myself wondering: what will Google think of next? Cardboard?”) or are embedded into one of its other product lines like Google Docs, Google Reader, or Gmail. It’s the loyalty to the brand, not just the search engine.

However, Microsoft is smart and I have no doubt that they’re working on expanding services and applications that are associated or will be associated with Bing. When I examine these two competing companies, I’m not sure I know what the outcome will be, but I do know that there must be a lesson somewhere here for libraries. All three have a common trait: an established brand; but I’m guessing only two can boast hundreds of millions of consistent users.

Hint: Bing is not the underdog.

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