Why Anti-marketer Google Has Embraced Marketing

As Web Giant Migrates to More Services Beyond Search, Its Philosophy Has Changed

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When Google placed its first TV ad, a last-minute multi-million buy during the Super Bowl nearly two years ago, then-CEO Eric Schmidt tweeted, "Hell has indeed frozen over." Google is , after all, the company that introduced the world to auction-based advertising, where the market determines the price for ads and advertisers pay for results. Mr. Schmidt once called TV advertising "the last bastion of unaccountable spending in corporate America."

Yet two years later, hell seems to be freezing over on a more regular basis. While far from commonplace, Google videos -- they don't call them ads -- are cropping up more frequently on TV during shows like "The Big Bang Theory," "Futurama" and "The Voice." Google has even bought event-programming such as Game 7 of the World Series, where it placed a video about a music teacher who uses search to learn how to pitch a perfect game on PlayStation (and wins $1 million). Google's Lady Gaga spot for its Chrome web browser ran on "Saturday Night Live" (on the night she performed) and on the Billboard Music Awards on ABC. Another spot for Chrome, the "Johnny Cash Project," aired during Monday Night Football on the eighth anniversary of his death.

So far, Google has placed 13 different ads on TV over the past year, some getting multiple airings in different markets. Perhaps most memorably, Dan Savage's moving "It Gets Better" spot debuted during "Glee" on Fox.

The Lady Gaga spot for its Chrome web browser ran on 'SNL' on the night she performed.
The Lady Gaga spot for its Chrome web browser ran on 'SNL' on the night she performed.
Google has no dedicated TV budget, but TV and other traditional media is figuring more prominently in its strategies, a huge shift from a year ago, when Google mostly used its own properties such as AdWords and YouTube to promote its products. What happened? Google has transformed from a company grounded almost entirely in search into one that builds and powers an increasing array of consumer brands such as Chrome, Google+, Android and its cloud apps.

"When I took over marketing at Google three years ago, there was no marketing," said VP Lorraine Twohill. Since then, she's built marketing staffs -- and budgets -- in 40 countries. As Ad Age sibling publication Creativity recently put it, "2011 was the year the once-famous-for-not-marketing brand became famous for its marketing."

Along the way, Google is developing its own particular style based on the idea that products should prove themselves in the market. It's a philosophy shared by Google's famously marketing-averse co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. "I think that the founders always had an enormous bias toward products proving themselves," said Andy Berndt, VP, Creative Lab, which oversees brand storytelling at Google. "It puts pressure on all of us to create products people would share."

As far as storytelling approach, Google isn't so unlike Apple: Tell the story of how a great technology had an impact on someone's life, be it a romance budding on Google or an Austin couple that used Google Docs to help open a restaurant.

As Ms. Twohill said, "for us it still boils down to: know the user and know the magic and find a way to connect the two." But unlike Apple, which makes incredibly expensive, well-produced spots in the most expensive venues possible, Google's videos are decidedly low-fi and experimental. "We never set out to create a TV ad," she said. "We start out on the web and then we jump the higher-engagement ones to other platforms. Those platforms are still being defined. When we do buy TV, we buy iconic shows, shows where we feel very comfortable."

When Google does buy TV, it goes for unusually long 90-second spots, counter to the prevailing view that TV and web video ads can and should be ultra-short. "In an industry pushing the form to 15 seconds, they are going to counter with 90- and sometimes two-minute spots to tell an emotive story," said Peter Daboll, CEO of AceMetrics, which measures the effectiveness of video ads. "It's very low frequency and high impact."

By most outside measures, Google is increasing its marketing spending dramatically. As of August, Google had spent $103 million on TV, print and online display advertising this year, compared to $53 million in all of 2010, according to Kantar Media.

These figures are directional only. They don't include search, text ads or paid video ads through YouTube or other venues. And they don't include Google's most-visible medium of all: its homepage. Over the past year, Google has used the most-trafficked page on the internet, Google.com, to promote Chrome, Google's Nexus S phone and its social network Google+.

The playing field on which Google is most at home is YouTube, where videos produced by Google Creative Lab have dominated when measured against other marketers. Over the past year, Google videos have been viewed 67.3 million times, according to Visible Measures, making Google the third most-watched brand behind Old Spice (89.7 million) and Volkswagen (81.8 million).

Google's crowdsourced "Johnny Cash Project" was one of the top 20 most-effective ads of the past 60 days, running at a hefty 1:30 minutes, according to Ace Metrix. Google's crowdsourced brand, Android, is largely marketed by its wireless carrier partners and device manufacturers.

Chrome had 100 million users before it got its first TV ad; now Google is exploring other platforms to help reach the next 100 million, people who don't necessarily think much about a web browser and may not really know what one is . "We make videos to help people understand," Mr. Berndt said. "We don't know where they're going to end up."

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