A branding strategy to cut through Hype Cycles

RootBranded branding strategy hype cycle

The Hype Cycle is a well-known graphical representation of the stages that a technology goes through as it develops from conception to maturity in terms of adoption and deployment. It was devised by the information technology research and consultancy company Gartner, and aims to provide a basis for risk assessment and decision making.

As to its form, the Hype Cycle constitutes a steep rising wave, marking initial excitement, followed by a deep low, representing disillusionment, which then gradually recovers towards a stable plateau signalling widespread adoption. It does not so much indicate the developmental path of the technology itself, but rather how it is perceived by the public in terms of expectation and understanding.

Gartner hype cycle
Source: Gartner

Companies grappling with the emergence of promising new technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, internet of things, customer data platforms and blockchain often consult the Hype Cycle to determine a technology’s commercial viability at a given moment in time and to what extent adoption or rejection poses risk or opportunity.

Root branding cuts through Hype Cycles

There is no doubt that businesses associated with technologies should use the Hype Cycle to their advantage in a way that provides them with an innovative edge and boosts their commercial profile. However, a balance which sufficiently separates the business’ core from a given technology’s dramatic life cycle is crucial to minimise exposure during the downward trend and safeguard its existence in the face of more sophisticated technologies yet to be invented.

The key to achieving such a balance requires a two-pronged branding strategy which entails what we call ‘surface affiliation’ on the one hand and ‘core dissociation’ on the other.

Surface affiliation

Surface affiliation means adopting and promoting a new technology; absorbing its lexicon and participating in the surrounding discourse; forging strategic partnerships for its development and application; and utilising a range of marketing tools from iconic imagery to rich content to foster public trust.

Core dissociation

Core dissociation entails a company’s deep and consistent articulation of its founding purpose both externally and internally in terms of a meaningful contribution that it seeks to make either to an entity or process (humanity, nature, emancipation, etc.). It should do so in a way which is fundamentally independent of a given technology or technique. A well-defined and consistent founding purpose forms the basis for a company’s identity, drives sustainable customer acquisition, and retains value across different applications.

Building brands which are deeply committed to their root purpose enables companies to raise their narratives above technological trends and functional benefits, repositioning them as promising though mere vehicles for the company’s deeper driving goal. This approach strengthens a company’s survivability as it fosters adaptability, sustainable public relations and customer loyalty. It furthermore provides companies with a self-defined moral compass which can guide them in their creative growth.

In contrast to Gartner’s Hype Cycle which prioritises economic risk factors, this two-pronged branding strategy provides companies with an expanded set of considerations when making decisions about emergent technologies.

Yahoo versus Google

Yahoo and Google’s stories of growth underscore the importance of branding from the core. Both companies can broadly be regarded as search engines engaged in direct competition. Yet, although they draw on similar technologies and subscribe to the same advertising revenue model, their developmental paths are vastly diverging.

In understanding Google’s success over Yahoo, we should take into account that whereas Yahoo was already in the running while the dot com bubble was forming, Google only stepped on stage after the bubble had burst. It was therefore able to fill a void. Google furthermore had a serious edge over its competitors due to its advanced algorithm which caused a revolution in the industry. In addition to these factors, however, an important reason which enabled Google as a newcomer to outshine Yahoo had to do with branding.

At the level of identity, Yahoo and Google adhere to different root purposes and have dealt with these underlying goals differently in terms of consistency. This is a vital element in understanding why Google has come out a champion, whereas Yahoo struggles to stay relevant and is at risk of sliding into obscurity.

Yahoo’s dilemma

“We have never been a search company,” stated Carol Bartz, Yahoo’s then CEO, to the New York Times in August 2009. However, “Search was Yahoo’s origin story,” claims Danny Sullivan, a search engine expert. “To say Yahoo was never a search engine is like saying Superman wasn’t originally from Krypton or that Spiderman was never bitten by a spider.”

Yahoo started out as a platform to navigate the ever-expanding web. In fact, its original name was ‘Jerry and David’s guide to the World Wide Web’. Only later, in 1994, as it approached its heyday was it renamed Yahoo. In refusing to acknowledge its defeat, Yahoo’s denial of its founding purpose poses a difficult question for the company as it looks ahead: If, for some reason, it no longer identifies itself as a search company, then what does it want to be?

The major problem with Yahoo is that at some point in its development, which eventually entailed a process of mirroring Google’s trend-setting technological applications, it fell victim to its own revenue model and instead of putting users first, it started to prioritise advertisers. In the process it lost sight of its founding purpose which was to assist users in navigating the web.

To illustrate, compared to the Google homepage which to this date remains remarkably clean, by 2004 there were over 255 links scattered across the Yahoo homepage. It has led to a cluttered, overbearing interface which rendered navigation problematic. Whereas Google’s user experience does not revolve around ad placements but on increasing relevance at all times, Yahoo is guided by the logic that its fortunes are tied to its pages.

Google’s coherence

Google’s trajectory has been markedly different. Like Yahoo, at its conception Google functioned as a search engine. However, its primary well-articulated mission was “to prioritise relevance, organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” More elaborately, its self-proclaimed root purpose is to develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible. It is not merely about enabling people to look up information quickly, but about building efficiency into the lives of its users and ultimately serve to save time.

Guided by this founding principle, it has launched a wide range of applications such as Google Maps, Gmail, Google Scholar and Google Drive, developed software for Android and it has been at the forefront of incorporating and further developing new technologies such as DeepMind’s artificial intelligence technology. Yet at the level of its deep identity it is not exclusively associated with its technological applications but rather with convenience, relevance, accessibility, inclusivity and efficiency. Qualities that are in line with its driving goal.

Despite operating in a notably coherent way, in recent months certain moves by Google have come to light which are questionable. For example, its project-based collaboration with the US military and its announced consideration of launching a censored search engine for China. Yet, while these are indeed concerning departures from Google’s root purpose, the fact that with regard to both cases thousands of its employees have publicly protested against these departures attest to the fact that Google’s root purpose forms a significant part of its base architecture and functions as a strong self-defined moral compass, both internally and externally.

Whereas Yahoo seems to have lost sight of its root purpose, Google has been largely committed to it. This is one of the major reasons why in grappling with the same technologies, Google has grown in strength and was able to safely diversify while Yahoo has had to forfeit.

Final Remarks

Start-ups that wish to capitalise on emerging technologies are best served by a two-pronged branding strategy consisting of superficial affiliation and core dissociation. Committing deeply to a meaningful goal and rooting a brand deeply within that goal enables companies to make better decisions in terms of responding to, adopting and developing certain technologies while minimising the risk of sliding into obscurity along the way.

This style of branding leads to multi-layered communication strategies which although subject to change retain the company’s core values in the overall narrative. It guides brand leverage, builds coherence, and ensures that disruptive start-ups of today can set the guidelines for tomorrow.