Google wants to be Apple again. Here's the problem

Commentary: To succeed in mobile hardware, Google will have to master something for which it has never shown expertise: product marketing.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

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Can Google turn millions into Pixellites?


Try this experiment.

Walk up to people who don't work in tech -- surely you know at least one -- and ask them what they think about Pixel phones.

I fancy they'll stare at you benignly and wonder if you've been imbibing excessively or if it's just a trick question.

Over the years, Google has dabbled in the idea of having its own phones. The essential strategy was always clear: Apple succeeds because it controls not only the hardware, but the software. 

Google thought it could do the same by buying Motorola, which it then sold to Lenovo. 

Now, it seems to believe it can do the same by buying many employees (and some intellectual property) from HTC's mobile division

It all seems sensible, if remarkably late. Google accepted for far too long that Samsung would make premium Android phones and Google's software would maintain the company's reach across the world.

Now, though, Google has to build a brand, one that isn't called Google. The company currently markets these phones as: "Pixel. Phones Made by Google."

The quality of the phones shouldn't be in doubt. Those who actually saw, touched and played with Pixel phones admired them. My colleague Lynn La described them as "pure Android at its absolute best."

But this Android was so pure that few gained access. Can Google really master the infernally tricky business of turning humans into Pixellites?

There's a certain irony in the company teaming with HTC. This Taiwanese company often used to release very attractive phones. 

On the marketing side, however, its efforts ranged from the pained to the bizarre.

Surely you haven't forgotten HTC mocking "The Bachelorette" in an ad, have you? And remember when the company actually tried mocking Apple's "1984" ad? Yes, with the tagline: "Be Brilliant." 

It wasn't done with Cupertino. Another HTC ad suggested that iOS was an illness -- Irritable Operating System. Gosh, that must have hurt Apple.

The company also turned to famous stars. There was an ad featuring Gary Oldman, in which he insisted that it didn't matter what he said, as people form their own opinions anyway. So he just said "blah" over and over again.

Then there was the company's dalliance with Robert Downey Jr. At the time, I described it as "bonkers." Principally, because it was.

The phone market is relatively mature. If you're a new entrant, you have to offer a radically different product or a radically different, emotionally uplifting message.

Google's incursions into hardware have not been universally impactful. Yes, there are Chromebooks. The company also bought smart thermostat company Nest. 

But truly challenging Apple's dominance in the upper echelons of the phone market is a radical challenge. Samsung showed the way when it launched the Galaxy SII by mocking Apple's fanperson cult.

There was a real truth at the campaign's core. Samsung created an excellent anti-Apple feeling and traded on it.

Google has, over recent years, worked with outside ad agencies and made some excellent ads, often for causes. This, though, is the company's biggest product marketing challenge.

Paying just over a billion dollars for some fine engineers is merely the first step. There's every reason to believe new Pixel phones will be attractive, well-made devices.

But can Google create a big picture from its Pixels? I hope it does. Apple could do with a little more competition.

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