What you can learn from Google’s success (and Yahoo!’s failure) at brand messaging

How clear are you on your business (or freelance) mission? Find out why you need to be more Google and less Yahoo! when it comes to brand messaging.

It’s very hard to come up with successful marketing messaging – and even business strategy – without a clear company mission. And to demonstrate why this is the case, in this article we’re going to look at two companies whose names will be familiar to you: Google and Yahoo!.

To be more precise, we’re going to explain what Google has got right about their brand messaging and how it’s helped them, and what Yahoo! has got wrong.

Google’s brand mission is well-known and well-established: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

This was the mission created by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin early on, and remains its mission today. It’s even on their About page:

Everyone who works for Google knows their mission and it underpins and drives almost everything the company does – from their marketing campaigns to their growth strategy.

But what’s Yahoo!’s company mission? This is much less clear. If you search for “About Yahoo!” (ironically, on Google’s search engine) a link to Yahoo!’s website doesn’t even appear on page one of the results. We tried looking on the Yahoo! site directly and there was no navigation for their about us page. And guessing it might be /about just resulted in this:

Yahoo!’s mission statement has changed 24 times in 24 years

Google “Yahoo! mission statement” and you find this (not on Yahoo!’s website): “As a leader in global daily habits like email, entertainment, news and sports, we strive to inspire, delight and entertain. By infusing our products with beauty and personality driven by our users, every Yahoo! experience feels made to order.”

Not only is it much longer and more complicated than Google’s mission statement (and much harder to find…) but it’s also much more inward focused. While Google wants to make the world’s information accessible and useful, Yahoo! wants to infuse their products with beauty and personality.

But this isn’t the main issue with their mission – it’s the amount of time it’s changed over the years:

  • In July 2012, it was: “Yahoo! is a technology powered media company, creating deeply personal digital experiences that keep more than half a billion people connected to what matters most to them, across devices and around the globe.”
  • Then in November 2012, it changed to: “Yahoo! is focused on making the world’s daily habits more inspiring and entertaining. By creating highly personalised experiences for our users, we keep people connected to what matters most to them, across devices and around the globe.”
  • And then in 2015, it changed again to: “A guide focused on making users’ digital habits inspiring and entertaining.”

And that’s just a small sample of the apparent changes! According to this researcher, who tracked Yahoo!’s boilerplate for press releases, how company described themselves changed 24 times in 24 years:

Here are where the changes apparently happened:

  • Between 1996-2001, CEO Tim Koogle made six missions (a new one each year).
  • Between 2002-2009, two CEOs (Terry Semel and Jerry Yang) made six missions.
  • Between 2009-2012, four CEOs (Carol Bartz, Tim Morse, Scott Thompson and Ross Levinsohn) made six missions.
  • Between 2012-present, CEO Marissa Mayer, has made five missions.

If you’re not clear about what you do, how can your customers be?

If a company themselves aren’t clear about who they are, what they do and why, how can their customers be?

It turns out they can’t. Because while Google has stuck with one clear mission, their business has grown significantly. The strength in knowing what they stood for enabled the business to make clearer, bolder business decisions, and to diversify into new sectors while remaining true to its vision.

In early 2020, it also enabled Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to become only the third American tech company to be worth $1 trillion in market value. (Google was founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page.)

Yahoo!, meanwhile, has virtually given away its early head start. The company was founded in 1994 by Jerry Yang and David Filo, and was one of the pioneers of the early Internet era in the 1990s. At its height Yahoo! was worth $125 billion, but in 2016 it was sold for just $5 billion, in what was billed as ‘the saddest $5 billion deal in tech history‘.

And when you start digging into the reasons why Yahoo! failed so spectacularly, time and again you keep seeing this explanation:

It’s clear that a business mission is more than just pretty words on a website, designed to make you sound good. It’s the compass by which your business plans its route, makes its decisions, and decides your success.

It’s not just tech giants who need a brand mission – you do too!

But if course this all relates to multi-million dollar companies. How can this be relevant to you if you’re a freelancer or small business owner? Surely it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a mission statement or brand identity?

Actually it does.

Because however large or small your business is, knowing exactly what you do, for who, how and why can help you to stand out among the competition, and lodge yourself in the minds of potential customers and clients. And if they know what you stand for, they’re more likely to remember you, and choose you.

How developing a ‘brand motto’ helped me turn a negative into a positive as a freelance writer

A few years ago, before Talented Ladies Club really took off, I was a freelance copywriter. And while there were many copywriters clients could choose from, I never had trouble finding work – and when I did gain a new client, I rarely lost them. Not only did they stay with me (many for more than 10 years), but they also recommended me to other companies.

So why was this? It’s partly because I was aware that I was a business and had a defined brand personality – I even developed a motto I worked to.

So what was this brand personality? While I never had a logo, or even company name, I recognised that to be successful as a freelancer I had to be consistently professional. I boiled this down to three key values:

  • To be good at what I did.
  • To charge a competitive rate.
  • To be a pleasure to work with.

I saw my job not just to write copy for my clients, but to take a problem away from them. However, I also recognised that there were limitations in my offering. This was a long time before the pandemic made remote work the norm, and it was even before the days of Zoom. As a result, clients often wanted you to work in-house or, at the very least, travel to their offices to take briefs for projects.

The problem with this is that I had two young children at the time – one in school and one a pre-schooler at home with me. And I lived a 90-minute train journey outside London (where most clients worked). So traveling to meetings was always tricky and often impossible. And I ran the very real risk of losing work to other writers who could travel to meetings.

So I found a way to turn what was initially perceived as a negative into a positive. And developed that motto I mentioned: Give me a deadline and I’ll meet it.

I took the fact I was virtually housebound and made it a positive. Because I had young children I was often up early, and I wasn’t out traveling to meetings. So while I couldn’t offer my clients flexibility in terms of traveling to their offices, I could offer them the convenience of working to whatever deadline they needed to meet – even if that meant working on a weekend or taking an emergency late night brief.

And it worked. Clients appreciated my willingness to help them out of tight spots (I even once took one brief at 10pm and turned in the work at 9am the next morning). They also valued that my work was consistently of a high standard (which made them look good), I never charged extra for working at unsociable hours or turning work around quickly, and I was always a pleasure to deal with.

As a result, they’d send any work they got my way – even the non-urgent briefs. And they were delighted to recommend me to others who needed a copywriter.

Even years after I closed down my freelance website and stopped looking for work, I still get enquiries from former clients or people they have recommended me to.

However small your business, you need a clear mission or motto

So what can you take from this? However small your business – even if it’s just you – you can still have a clear mission or motto that will differentiate you from the crowd and help you to win work and sales.

You just need to understand who your customers or clients are, and what they want. This isn’t always obvious at first glance. For example, on the surface my clients just wanted copy. But when I looked beyond that to the person who was hiring me, I realised that they wanted copy that made their life easier, and made them look good.

That meant they needed well-written copy that would be reliably delivered on schedule to a consistently high standard, by someone who knew what they were doing and didn’t need hand-holding. And that didn’t blow their budget.

When you know what your customers or clients really want, you can define your point of difference; how you help them get it. And sometimes, as with me, this positive point of difference can be found in what initially seems a negative – allowing you to take control and reframe that ‘negative’.

So for me, when clients asked if I could come in and meet them, I wouldn’t just say, “No, sorry.” I would say “I can’t come in to see you, however we can speak over the phone and I can get everything I need from our call. Not traveling frees me up so I can spend more time working. I also work flexibly so I can meet whatever deadline you need. Can I send you some examples of my work?”

Imagine if I didn’t have a clear sense of my offering and the value to my clients. I would just be left turning down the opportunity to visit them (which they’d have seen as a negative) and would have no way to demonstrate I wanted to help them and differentiate myself from other writers with my USP (meeting their deadlines).

How can you echo Google’s success (and avoid Yahoo!’s brand mistakes)?

So what about you? What do your customers or clients really need from you and what you do? And are you adequately conveying it? Do you have a defined mission or brand message that helps you to win business and be remembered?

We recommend following Google’s example and spending the time to define your mission. Who do you want to help, and how? And what makes YOU the best at that? Find a positioning, mission, motto or USP that you can own, and stick with it. Use your clarity to communicate your values and made decisions going forward.

And whatever you do, try to avoid the mistakes of Yahoo!. Make sure your mission is clears simple and offers a genuine benefit to your ideal customers. Spend the time to get it right, then stick with it. If you don’t you’ll just confuse yourself (and your marketing) and will fail to build any equity, respect or memorability with your customers and clients. You’ll also lack a clear roadmap to follow, and from which you make informed, consistent decisions.

If you’d like help identifying your ideal customer’s needs, and your business or freelance messaging, including your mission and brand values, take a look at Marketing The Easy Way, our online course for small business owners and freelancers. Over eight weeks we show you how to build and launch a brilliant business plan that will attract the right customers or clients and nurture them until they’re ready to buy from or work with you.

Love more help with your marketing? Find out how you can launch a brilliant marketing plan in just eight weeks with our online course Marketing The Easy Way.

Photo by Jaimie Harmsen