Google’s "Coffee" – Are Your Customers Ready for Your Message?



Brian Cantor
05/08/2012

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Shortly after my first encounter with Google Chrome’s new "Coffee" ad spot, I decided I simply had to write about the tech giant’s marketing strategy.

This is not the article I initially intended to compose.

A sucker for sentimentality, I found myself engaged by the 90-second commercial, which features a man named Mark Potter using Google’s various tools—including Google Docs, Picasa and YouTube—to win back an estranged ex-lover. Of course the ad is cheesy, but I also felt its rippling sense of humanity, and it demonstrated to me how vastly superior Google is at relating to the customers it hopes to court.

While so many brands are stuck trying to pass obnoxious, unlikable pitchmen and wordplay off as "down-to-earth," here was yet another example of Google speaking to genuine human emotion. No, it was not as groundbreaking as the "Parisian Love" ad or quite as touching as "Dear Sophie," but it still tugs on heart strings with its legitimate effort to connect with viewers. Whether we’re in a relationship, suffering the heartbreak of a split or still looking for the right person, we all can understand the notion of a man fighting to regain the trust of the woman he loves.

We, at least, can certainly relate to that storyline more than we could, for instance, to the talented, but purposefully-unlikable Chris Parnell playing his deliberately-smarmy character as he mocks competitive smart phones as "beta tests" (who would even use the word "beta test" in conversation?) in the new Nokia Lumia spot.

Instead of thinking that technology can only be humanized through snarky dialogue from douchier versions of Jim from "The Office," as so many organizations do, Google lets sweet, sentimental, palpable stories take center stage as its technologies serve as the backdrop tying everything together. It doesn’t necessarily sell a product each time out, but it does wonders for making Google the brand that users want to remember.

The Heart isn’t always the best judge

But with this analytical approach to Google’s new promotional spot, I was, in fact, making a very bold assumption that is not shared by the totality of Google’s audience: that customers can see the endearing humanity in an aggressive romantic pitch waged over the Internet.

Though the majority of discussion remains positive, more than a few users are sour on the ad. Some point to the unattractive desperation of the male character. Others fault the ad for perpetuating the gender stereotype that male selfishness is what leads to break ups and so it is always the man who has to fight to win the woman back.

Such objections do not hold much water. Mark Potter is obviously desperate—that is the point of the ad; that his need to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend is too intense to ignore. And while it is true that the ad does not rethink gender roles in relationships, its purpose as a promotional spot is to connect with a storyline that the majority recognizes and appreciates. This is the romantic tale viewers have come to expect, and as a result, it is the one best suited for resonating with a broad audience.

The most prominent objection, however, is considerably more compelling. The actual argumentation took on a number of iterations, but the gist of it is consistent: Mark Potter is "creepy" for using the Internet to court the object of his affections.

That this objection did not initially spring to mind for me is quite intriguing—I, after all, am generally opposed to online dating on grounds of both pride and romanticism. I do not yet believe the Internet is a frequently-compelling destination to turn for love.

And yet, here, I never for a second felt anything unusual towards the ad. If I had any negative feeling whatsoever, it was resentment over the fact that the male protagonist set an impossible standard of effort for those who will one day need to win their girlfriends or boyfriends back. Honest words, it seems, will no longer be enough.

Others, however, could not get past the "stalker" vibe that Mark projected. It was "weird" for him to collect and present all these "memories" from their relationship. It was cowardly and geeky for Mark to rely on an email and some photos and videos to express what he should have done over the phone or in person. Quite simply, this was a faèade being put on by a man who cannot move on but is not necessarily truly changing, rather than a true statement of his regret and intent to do better. It was impersonal.

No matter the specific wording of the argument, the negativity all boils down to the fact that an inherent "distance" exists in online conversation.

Sincerely romantic or not, Mark’s sentiment could never quite resonate for many because it was communicated via email rather than a more personal channel. Well-intentioned or not, Mark’s collection of anecdotes, photos, videos and relationship trivia could never quite touch because it was aggregated on the computer and thus inherently stalkerish.

For many, email and social media have completely replaced texting and phone calls as the primary means of communication. We put every memory of every moment of our lives in Internet "timelines" accessible by the entire world. Whether we were ever there remains a question, but we have certainly moved past the point of the Internet being a tool exclusively used by creeps to keep tabs on the men and women they cannot approach in real life.

And yet, all the while, some remained convinced of the distance that exists in online communication. We do it because "everybody does it" and is therefore convenient, comprehensive and logical, yet we are certain the entire time that we are not communicating on a truly-personal, truly-human level. And so, while we can make the exception for friendly online banter because it is sensible, when it comes to the intimate notion of romantic relationships, the medium risks feeling dirty and improper.

If Mark Potter had taken his ex on a journey through their hot-and-cold relationship in real life, he would be optioning his story as the next hit romantic comedy. But because he has chosen to express his memories through a collection of computerized spreadsheets, text documents, photos and videos, he is a creep who is spending far too much time on his geeky tech endeavors and not enough time on truly connecting with the woman he loves.

Reflective Marketing v. Aspirational Marketing

Ultimately, there is enough of a positive response to this ad to warrant its creation. What Google was trying to accomplish with the latest in its "The web is what you make of it" series was, by and large, achieved.

In essence, the end verdict is that Google’s ad is a success.

But the unavoidable level of negative discourse definitely raises a worthy concern: to what extent can marketing be aspirational? Clearly, there is a portion of the audience not yet convinced on the web’s role in facilitating romance. As a result, there is a portion of the audience inherently unable to fall for the ad the way Google wants them to fall. They simply cannot accept the premise of a man turning to a collection of web media to win back a lost lover and thus cannot fully recognize the degree to which the web empowers human interaction.

Most of us recognize the inevitable reality that the Internet will reach this point. Many wonderful, undying relationships will be borne from creative emails and YouTube video campaigns rather than charming first dates and beautiful flowers at the door. Just like Facebook eventually did become a valuable alternative for having real communication with friends, Google’s network of services—or, at least, someone’s network of services—will be a legitimate tool for fairy tale courtship.

But to what extent can brands jump the gun? Again, Google’s message was resonant enough to overcome concerns and objective from most, but that does not mean all technology brands will consistently achieve that success. Sometimes, they will hurt their message by focusing on their aspirations for the future of technology rather than their reflection of how technology is currently influencing lives.

As much as we want to be progressive and think ahead, there is definitely a risk if the messaging is so progressive that end-users cannot relate.

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