What happens when a company decides to step back from one of the core principles underpinning its customer experience? Google may well find out in the near future.
The company is reportedly exploring a return to the Chinese market by deploying a censored search engine that adheres to restrictions imposed by the Chinese government.
This would be a big reversal for Google. Back in 2010, the company was lauded for taking a stand against Chinese censorship and making the highly principled decision to exit one of the world’s largest consumer markets. (See how we described that decision at the time, in this previous WaterRemarks blog post.)
Google’s decision back then (and any reversal, if it happens, now) are meaningful given the cornerstones of its brand experience, outlined by Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they established the company in 1998.
The brand purpose they articulated for Google was simple and inspiring: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The unofficial motto they embraced for the firm was a bit more direct: “Don’t be evil.”
As the company has matured, however, it has struggled to synchronize that idealistic charter with the realities of growing a trillion-dollar business.
That internal crisis of conscience was on full display this past June when Google, under pressure from employees (some of whom cited the “Don’t be evil” mantra), backed away from its artificial intelligence work with the U.S. military (technology which might, for example, help make drone strikes more deadly).
Interestingly, around the same time, the firm quietly de-emphasized its “Don’t be evil” motto by removing it from the preface of its corporate Code of Conduct.
Then, earlier this month, came the news that Google might return to China and actually restrict the free flow of information by enabling censorship controls.
For Google customers and employees who loved what the company stood for, these developments are no doubt troubling. A return to China would certainly give the appearance that Google is compromising one of its core customer experience principles, effectively capitulating to a regime that some regard as autocratic and, yes, evil.
The realists among you may argue that Google simply has no choice – that, as a for-profit institution, the company can’t afford to walk away from China, the world’s largest internet market.
Let’s be honest… has any company in the history of the world ever forgone billions of dollars in revenue just to stay true to its brand purpose?
Well, actually, yes!
Southwest Airlines (which, like Google, is perennially ranked among the best companies in customer experience) was founded with the express purpose of democratizing the skies – offering an economical but pleasant air travel alternative that, in the company’s own words, “gives people the freedom to fly.”
Southwest’s unwavering commitment to that principle has guided its actions for the past half-century – including, in recent years, its rejection of baggage fees.
Despite seeing its competitors rake in over $4 billion in revenue from those fees, Southwest has refused to abandon its “bags fly free” policy, even in the face of intense Wall Street pressure.
In a 2015 interview, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly responded to critics, noting that “Southwest would lose a billion dollars if we started doing those things.”
Why? Because a simple and economical travel experience is a hallmark of the Southwest customer experience. It’s why many passengers choose to fly the airline in the first place. Start chipping away at those brand cornerstones and you essentially dispense with that which makes Southwest’s offering unique and appealing in the marketplace.
Just this past July, on Southwest’s quarterly earnings conference call, Kelly reiterated the carrier’s aversion to baggage fees. “I don’t think we need to change the essence of what Southwest Airlines is to still find opportunities to drive revenues,” he explained. (Since baggage fees were first introduced by U.S. carriers in 2008, Southwest’s stock has continued to outperform the industry – lending quantitative credence to Kelly’s argument.)
Good companies infuse their customer experience with a compelling brand purpose.
Great companies uphold that brand purpose at every turn, even when it requires making really difficult decisions (like Southwest not charging baggage fees, Apple not monetizing its customer data, or CVS not selling tobacco products.)
Time will tell in which category Google resides, as the company contemplates just how far it can bend its brand principles before they become meaningless.
The lesson for our readers, however, is simply this: Purpose-driven, principled brands often enjoy customer experience tailwinds that help endear those companies to their target clientele.
But the process of defining your organization’s “soul,” of pinpointing your True North, of articulating an authentic, compelling brand purpose – that exercise should not be taken lightly.
Ask yourself: Would you be willing to forgo meaningful amounts of revenue in order to stay true to that purpose? Would you be able to defend such a decision, confident that it would be in the best interest of your company over the long-term (if not the short-term)?
If the answer is “no,” then go back to the purpose-defining drawing board. Or, just be honest and acknowledge that yours is a business driven principally by financial factors, as opposed to customer experience considerations.
Either of those two alternatives is far preferable to the more common outcome that many companies stumble into: Defining a lofty brand purpose that makes for good Annual Report copy, but has no bearing on actual business operations.