What Tiger Woods Can Teach Google

No story dominates the public consciousness right now more than Tiger Woods’ infidelity. With all due respect to Michael Jackson, Woods’ controversy knocked him out of the public zeitgeist – handily. Despite the sudden nature of Jackson’s death, it really wasn’t unexpected. At any moment over the last decade, the following exchange could easily have taken place:

“Michael Jackson just died.”

“Michael? Drugs?”

“They’re saying drugs.”

“Figures. Man, I loved me some ‘Billie Jean.'”

Woods was a whole different story. The news came as a shock and surprise. Woods was an iconic figure; he made golf interesting. He sold more Buicks than anyone should be capable of selling.

His apology stopped the world at 11 a.m. on a Friday, and he shattered the record for most consecutive days on the cover of the New York Post – beating out 9/11. Now, we engage in our favorite pastime: tearing down an icon.

What can we learn from all this? Aside from not leaving a trail of panicked voicemails declaring that “she’s on to us,” we learned that no one is immune to tarnishing. No matter how iconic your brand, if you make a mistake we’ll forget all the good will you’ve accrued and enjoy watching every minute of your failure.

Despite its sordid details, Google is one brand that should pay attention to Woods. Let’s compare some word associations between the two:

  • Trusted…check
  • Industry changer…check
  • Innovator…check
  • Adored…check
  • Verb…check

As a brand, Google shares many similarities with Woods. Luckily for them, Google now has the ability to learn from Woods’ dalliances. Three areas present potential pitfalls for Google.

Big Brand or Monopoly?

This question will come up more as we struggle to define the word monopoly. In days of yore, the definition of monopoly was pretty cut and dry. You had to own the market to a point where no one else can compete, and you had to have an unfair influence over price.

By that definition, Google doesn’t necessarily qualify. You don’t have to be on Google to take part in search. You can spend your money with (cue the “Star Wars” music) the “Search Alliance.” However, it won’t have nearly the same impact on your business.

Regardless of whether you’re a small retail store in New York or a large brand like Ralph Lauren, you can’t afford to avoid marketing on Google. This creates a monopoly of a different sort. In this new monopoly, Google can pay less attention to its paying customers.

Google’s policy changes and product launches in the past were seemingly done without keeping the people who pay the bills in mind. Google needs to pay attention to customer service, build agency trust, and stand behind its advertiser policies now more than ever. Like Woods, Google must go above and beyond to make people comfortable.

Don’t Take Us For Granted

When the Woods controversy comes up at dinner parties, people often cite his ego. They appear bothered because Woods seemed above all this. Even Woods understood. During his staged press conference, he mentioned numerous times how he “needs to be accountable.” He knows people (advertisers) trust him (pay him), and he can’t take that for granted. Google needs to internalize this in a different way.

Google loves to introduce products under the belief that it will make our lives better. Gmail, Google Docs, Google Sidewiki, Google Buzz, and personalization are all Google enhancements. But are they necessary? What happened to its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible“?

Some of these products line up with this mission statement, but not all of them. The user continues to be the test bed, and not always for the better.

We want Google to innovate and provide us with useful tools. We just don’t want them forced on us or to be Google’s lab.

When Google Buzz launched, Google made the assumption that people in Gmail were people that you wanted to follow. Privacy became both an issue and an outcry, putting Google on the defensive.

Have a more open dialogue with agencies and clients. Talk to us. Ask about how these enhancements impact our day-to-day business. Don’t assume that just because “it’s Google” it’s something we want. Such an outlook is monopolistic and alienates us.

Privacy

Privacy is the text message at 2 a.m. People already have guarded optimism when it comes to Google and the data it’s accumulated. It makes sense when Eric Schmidt explains that if they abuse consumer trust, Google will cease to exist.

But logic also dictates that if you’re the biggest athlete in the world, then you don’t have 18 mistresses. Google might not always be helmed by people with the same sense of ethics.

At some point, as it tries to meet the expectations of Wall Street, Google may decide that tweaking the Quality Score to affect bid price ever so slightly makes sense. How can we ever truly trust that Google will be the one brand in society that doesn’t succumb to such pressure? After all, it happened to Woods.

It’s All About Trust

Google should take the time to see how quickly Gatorade, Accenture, and Gillette have all walked away from a man that really helped build their brands. Corporate distancing is understandable, but it should serve as a wake-up call to Google that brands can fall hard and fast. The search giant must reinvest in building trust with the little guy so that we’ll be more forgiving if and when controversy strikes.

Meet Josh Palau at SES New York, March 22-26, 2010 at the Hilton New York. SES and ClickZ are both part of Incisive Media.

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