Saturday, July 30, 2011

Are you what you do?

A fairly mundane debate sparked by a comment I made on Twitter about the (pathetic) "Gmail Man" campaign launched by Microsoft led to unexpected territory: philosophy about what defines identity.

One of my friends and partners, Fabian Tilmant, a Google hater, Apple zealot and Tech skeptic, who is currently working on a book outlining DICoDE a model aimed at decoding and reinventing content businesses, said something like "you are what you do". His claim came from the fact that I said Google has a weakness in the way most people perceive them as a company, replying to Fabian's opinion that Google is "increasingly perceived as an ad company". For the record I disagree with that statement and I'm looking for data about how Google is perceived, but I suspect people know the search engine, the billions made selling ad space and the issues with street view. Not too sure they'd spontaneously say "Oh yes! Google, the ad company"... Most people don't have a clue about things like AdWords, AdSense, the display network or retargeting... and even if they did, it's not an "ad company", whatever that may be.

Anyhow, are you what you do? Is a business what they do? Fabian thinks so and says "Public Opinion don't know vision/mission. They only see/feel/experiment touch points." He is quite right, but that does not mean that what consumers experiment is the core of a brand's or company's identity: it is the perception of the people. It is also the definition of the company in the consumer's mind. But it is not identity. Identity is something that is difficult to grasp most of the time, which is why we often use metaphor to define or convey it. Identity is on the inside, not defined by someone else's perception of a person, company or brand. Granted, identity, mission, vision all have important influence on the kind of goals and strategies a company can pursue. In turn strategies have an influence on the activities of a company, including products, services and cultural patterns of behavior, all of which impact market perception. But again someone else's perception of you is not your identity, no more than your clothes are part of your organism.

So in my opinion in order to succeed, particularly with Google Apps - an amazing platform that gives businesses of all sizes the IT firepower they could never hope to have paying for armies of sys admins to run the incumbent's products -, Google needs to fix the way it's perceived because much of what many people know of Google tends to make it possible for older incumbents like Microsoft to try to exploit fear and imply (falsely or at least without any proof at all) that people's and businesses' emails are "read" by Google, much like your postman would open your good old paper envelopes. And of course we know that Microsoft is not alone using fear tactics or trying to hit Google's reputation using questionable means. Their good friends at Facebook have been caught paying a PR company of questionable ethical standards to slander Google.

So, no you are not what you do: identity and image are not the same thing at all.