A Struggle To Evolve
Google’s hardware products division raises a lot of questions when it comes to brand portfolio architecture and naming conventions. In late 2019, I wrote an article on why I think Google struggles with hardware. In doing so, I lightly touched upon its brand portfolio architecture which I believed did more harm than good.
After all, portfolio architectures are not restricted to internal consumption. They play a vital role with customers and internal understanding does not always mirror external comprehension.
When I look at Google’s hardware products division I see two problems – An overextension of sub-brands and the risk of diluting brand equity. To explain why this would be plausible, I’d like to compare Google’s brand portfolio architecture and naming practices with Apple.
Apple has predominantly been a hardware driven company. But, foreseeing saturation in key product-markets, they’ve been working extensively on building their digital services portfolio as a revenue source.
Google on the other hand draws most of its revenue from services and has attempted to infiltrate a very competitive hardware market over the last decade. Their intentions are made clear by high-profile acquisitions, partnerships and internal product developments. But, before heading into the weeds, let’s have a look at their respective revenue break-ups for more context.
A Look At The Numbers
For the fiscal year 2019, Apple posted sales of over $260 billion. 54% of that came from its iPhone business alone. Almost 18%, roughly $46 billion, came from services. A decade ago, services contributed as little as $5 billion. It’s also interesting to note that their services division posts almost twice the gross margins when compared to their product section today.
Google’s hardware division by comparison lags far behind, contributing approximately $2+ billion to an otherwise service dominated revenue stream.
The point I’m driving at is that it is possible to pursue non-core strengths with a long-term strategic perspective and still do so successfully. But, it takes a lot more than simply building good products or services. It requires a sound brand strategy to pave the way forward.
So, Where’s Google Going Wrong?
Google’s brand identity design was brought to life on their website. Every intricate application of the name, colors, motions and logo was explained succinctly. However, their goal for simplicity didn’t quite make it into Google’s hardware division.
Now, I’ve never really warmed up to Google’s hardware products, except Nest perhaps, and I believe that much of it has to do with non-functional elements.
For instance, Android phones never appealed to me because they seemed all too common across mobile manufacturers. There was never a sense of individuality to the platform and Google’s original handsets never caught my attention. A similar predicament continues to persist with Chromebooks. At least here, Google has a better design going for itself.
Further, when Google launched ‘Pixel’ to christen its series of laptops, it looked like a solid brand strategy was unfolding. Unfortunately, ‘Pixel’ got plastered onto every conceivable Google product thereafter.
Google’s troubles come from an overuse of sub-brands with no personality or sole being built into them.
Google’s Brand Architecture & Naming Convention
Google’s brand portfolio architecture and naming conventions seem all over the place. For instance, Google uses a Sub-brand + Descriptor / Numerical series strategy in some situations while imposing a Master brand + Sub-brand + Descriptor/Numerical series in others.
The screenshot below speaks of the former. For instance – Pixel Stand, Pixel Buds, Pixel 4 etc.
The following screenshots are testament to the latter naming convention that Google alludes to, i.e. a Master brand + Sub-brand + Descriptor / Numerical series. For instance, Google Pixel 4a, Google Pixelbook Go etc.
What’s equally disturbing is the inclusion of ‘Chromebook’ into the equation (as can be seen in the above screenshot). Chromebook is another sub-brand from Google that is employed by other branded partners using the same computing concept. ‘Chrome’ is also linked to Google’s browser and extended to its streaming device, Chromecast.
The Chromebook Pixel which launched in 2013, has since seen the ‘Pixel’ sub-brand extended to laptops, mobile phones, tablets and a range of accessories like Pixel Pen, Pixel Buds including Pixel Stand. Imagine having a master brand followed by two sub-brands and versions added to it descriptively or numerically.
Google uses yet another naming convention for some of its products, a Master brand + Descriptor. Examples include Google Home and Google Glass.
Apple’s Brand Architecture & Naming Convention
Google’s attempt to brand its products lies in stark contrast to Apple. The screenshot below gives us an idea of how Apple has approached this.
Apple’s naming conventions are simple and signal a hierarchical progression. They use a Sub-brand + Descriptor. For instance, under the iPad product line, you’d find – iPad Pro, iPad Air, iPad mini… and under Mac – iMac Pro, Mac Pro, Mac mini, Macbook Air etc. The iPhone product line follows a similar numerical pattern.
The point is that each product line has a unique sub-brand devoted to it along with a limited set of descriptors to indicate the position held in that particular line. Customers know exactly where the product places and what to expect.
With the exception of Apple Pencil, notice that all accessories are never directly linked to the master brand or sub-brand. They are cleverly labeled Airpods, Magic Keyboard, Magic Mouse, Smart Cover or Smart Folio even though some of them are exclusively connected to a specific product or category.
In addition, the master brand ‘Apple’ is not prominently displayed alongside sub-brands anymore. Sub-brands like iPhone, iPad and Mac have built enough equity over the years to warrant token endorsements from Apple, by way of its logo. In fact, Apple uses this token endorsement for much of its range nowadays.
Under the services umbrella, Apple uses a Master brand + Descriptor convention to communicate the service – Apple Music, Apple Tv, Apple News etc, again brandishing the same form of endorsement. A similar pattern is followed by Google – Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Photos etc.
Extending sub-brands like Pixel and Chrome makes sense when products are related. Leveraging the same sub-brand across multiple product categories, some unrelated, depreciates the value. Do we really need a ‘Pixel Stand’ or ‘Pixel Buds’?
This also begs contemplation over having competing business partners using Google’s sub-brands on their platforms. Less than stellar performances delivered on those platforms could transpose a negative user-experience onto Google. This situation is further compromised in markets not familiar with the true ownership and alliances of Google properties.
When naming products, it’s worth considering the number of syllables used. Cases where a master-brand places alongside a sub-brand and descriptor can be a little exhaustive on the tongue. The human brain is already an overworked sponge looking to condense and store new information. Lessening the burden does pay dividend. Else, people get creative and form their own versions of the name.
When you cross pollinate sub-brands across categories, you run the risk of confusion in the market. The personality of the sub-brand never fully impresses upon customers and they ultimately don’t see the ‘why’ in buying into it.