With Chrome OS, Google Re-writes Its Marketing Script

Marketers Have Long Given Away Free Samples, but Thousands of Laptops for an Unfinished Product?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Google is known for studiously not marketing its products. With search, the product was, of course, its own marketing. But with each successive entry into a new market, Google tweaks its "not marketing" model. Last week, the company tried a novel approach when launching its web-based computer-operating system, Chrome.

Google shies away from traditional marketing, but that hasn't stopped it from an ambitious beta test program for Chrome OS and a promotional web video.
Google shies away from traditional marketing, but that hasn't stopped it from an ambitious beta test program for Chrome OS and a promotional web video.
While Chrome OS-loaded netbooks won't go on sale until sometime next year, Google is shipping thousands of generic black laptops to big brands, giving employees a taste of computing according to Google, and a world dominated by its cloud-based apps.

Along with thousands of random and unaffiliated pilot beta testers, the following corporate workers will be helping Google get a shine on the Chrome: reservation agents at American Airlines; the engineering, sales and marketing teams of Logitech; the sales team and store employees of Jason's Deli; the hotel suites and call centers of Intercontinental Hotel Group; the production line employees at Kraft Foods; and every single employee of Virgin America -- including the pilots.

Is this kind of marketing -- a very public beta and a geek velvet rope to create interest -- a good idea? Edelman Digital Senior VP Steve Rubel said Google has flipped the script for a traditional hardware release. "Involving very large tech vendors in a beta program is nothing new, but what's new is the public nature of it," said Mr. Rubel. "They're sending out netbook models before they're cooked."

Mr. Rubel said that while Google really does want feedback for the product, the beta program has become part of Google's marketing strategy in general. But it can be a double-edged sword. "The danger of doing a public beta or semi-public beta is you can set a tone and a position for a product before the product is even done," he added.

But Google and its partners don't seem to mind.

Virgin America has 1,700 employees and is already doing plenty of promotion for Google, with Google Maps on the back of every chair in every aircraft and Google giving customers free Wi-Fi on Virgin flights through Jan 2. Intercontinental Hotel Groups has millions of hotel suites, and the company's PR head wrote a blog post for Google wherein he praises Chrome OS netbooks' anonymous guest login feature, which will be available for use in the chain's "thousands of business service centers around the world that provide internet access to our guests." The feature allows people to login without leaving behind identifiable information on the computer or in the cloud.

Acer and Intel are stealthily marketing their association with the effort as well. While the black-label netbook -- which Google calls CR-48 -- is made by Acer, the only visible branding linked to the netbook is Intel's. A business card included with every netbook shipped out of the Googleplex states: "If you cracked this open, you'd find Intel." Intel reps said Google would have to explain why the only branding in the netbook delivery box belongs to Intel, but the chip maker was more than excited to work with Google.

Is there any money exchanged between the Acer and Intel? "Chrome OS is free," said Google product manager Caesar Sengupta. So what do the partners get out of working with Chrome? "They get to sell devices that are much better. Their customers will hear the Google name, and that's what they'll use to sell devices." Sounds like a pretty good marketing plan so far, even at this bleeding edge stage.

Mr. Sengupta summed up the Chrome strategy: "We're trying to enable a whole ecosystem around Chrome with our partners." And plenty of marketers want to be connected to Google and use the brand to sell their stuff -- alpha, beta or zeta.

So when Google product managers say they have no current plans for getting Chrome OS into the market, perhaps they mean another definition of marketing. Oh, and Google's marketing department and the Chrome engineers got together to create a Chrome OS "promotional video," otherwise known as a commercial.

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