Google Fiber, Michelin and the Gamble for Demand
Google Fiber, Michelin and the Gamble for Demand

Near the beginning of 2017 when Google Fiber announced it was scaling way back, news sites and blogs began wildly bemoaning the failure of the project.

To that point the gigabit internet provider had been moving into cities like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, upgrading entire neighborhoods’ internet infrastructures with fiber optic cables and then selling them a service that was cheaper, better and much faster than their other ISPs. Many cities were signed on to be the next to get Google Fiber, and other hopefuls lobbied for the attention of the company to bring Google Santa down their chimneys.

When news that the company seemed to be struggling and had put a hold on expansions spread, everyone’s balloons deflated. Fiber optic internet is still the coolest, fastest, cheapest service out there for those lucky enough to have the upgrade, but ISPs had to be willing to shoulder the cost of installing the infrastructure. Google was the first to step up, and seemingly all they did was create competitors. What was in it for them? How could a company like Google miss the mark so much and not realize their internet service would not counter the cost of installation?

The answer to the second question is, arguably: they didn’t.

As for the answer to the first question, let’s take it back 118 years to 1900, when brothers Ándre and Édouard Michelin published the very first Michelin guide. The brothers owned a tire store, and they needed to sell tires. The way to sell tires, you might think, is by making them durable and giving them fancy treads and then telling everyone how durable they are while you talk up the functionality of the fancy treads. But the Michelin brothers thought bigger: they wanted to influence drivers to go through more tires – and influence more would-be drivers to get on the road.

At the time there were less than 3,000 cars on the road in France. Those who had them mostly drove them to church on Sundays and didn’t need new tires for long periods of time. The brothers had the idea that if those consumers had more interesting places to drive their cars to, they would go through those tires much faster. The Michelin guide mapped out restaurants and sites and filling stations along the way, selling drivers on the notion of the road trip. Once the road trip became a novel pastime, more people bought cars.

This is brand influence in action: a tire company made a travel guide to sell tires. That travel guide, incidentally, led to what is now the famous Michelin star rating system: one of the most influential tools in the restaurant world.

"I could live my life without the Michelin star, but life would not be the same…Michelin is the dream of so many chefs like me.” – Chef José Andrés, 2 Michelin Stars

While many consumers don’t know that the same company that makes tires is behind the rating system, you only need to look at how the rating system criteria is laid out – one star is excellent food, two stars is “worth taking a detour for,” and three stars is “worth travelling for.”

Back to Google Fiber: like the Sunday drivers in France, internet use was more or less stagnant. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had flattened charges and internet speed and service had gone as far as it was going to get. There wasn’t much difference between Cox or Time Warner, and consumers knew it. Google, a search engine company, makes its money on internet traffic. They needed users to get on the internet more and to move through it more quickly to bump up their sales. So how could they to get people to use those tires?

First Google had to actually build the road. In 2010, they began their “experiment” in Kansas City, Kansas, upgrading the cable infrastructure and then offering a new, vastly improved internet service. When they announced in 2012 that they were expanding, the news went like gangbusters. Cities clamored to get a piece. Other ISPs jumped in and began installing their own fiber optics to compete…and then Google began pulling out. Cities that already had their service still have it, but everyone else has to fend for themselves.

If Google meant to become the world’s leading gigabit internet provider, they failed. If they meant for all cities to have fiber optic infrastructures in place by 2020, they failed. But if they mean to stir up a perpetually growing revolution where everything was once still waters, they have succeeded. Their narrative was “if you don’t upgrade, we will.” And they kept up the bluff long enough to influence consumers, ISPs, municipalities, other brands, an entire network of players who are now jumping into the gigabit game. Google’s gamble might just pay off.

Enough cities now have fiber optic infrastructures that cities that don’t are finding a way to get it to compete for attracting businesses, residents and commerce. Google brilliantly did not just hit the big ones – they started with Kansas City (Kansas) Austin (Texas) and Provo (Utah). If you can get gigabit in Provo, Utah, shouldn’t you be able to get it in San Francisco? Is San Francisco going to stand for that?

And it isn’t just ISPs who are shouldering the cost for long-term gains. Fort Collins, Colorado, recently voted for the municipal government to implement fiber optic cables for the entire city. In the meantime, the internet needle is moving again and Google may ultimately get what they wanted all along: more search engine use.

The Michelin Guide and Google Fiber both illustrate how broad brand narratives use influence to motivate action and participation among audiences for a long term gain. Peripheral content is costly and sometimes we may wonder why we are putting up so much for it. After all, it feels like a gamble to sell travel when what you want to do is sell your ultra-durable tires. At the end of the day, though, you have to ask: do I want to sell a tire to one guy on the side of the road who needs the tire right now? Or do I want a bunch of guys on the side of the road needing my tire? The answer should be both.

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