Branding beta

September 13, 2010

In the branding world, with online and software brands in particular, the expanded roster of not-yet-ready-for-primetime products is often introduced to the market under cover of “Labs” or “Beta” designation. Intended in part to abdicate the brand from responsibility, a Labs or Beta label is kind of like saying: “Let the buyer beware.”

 

 

For Major League Baseball teams looking ahead to next year, September marks the season of expanded rosters, the time of year when teams can grow their list of active players from 25 up to 40. For those teams comfortably looking ahead to the playoffs, expanded rosters present an opportunity to rest their stars while giving “the kids” a chance to play in the Bigs. But the real appeal is for those teams (like, alas, my woeful New York Mets) for whom a new season can’t come fast enough, offering a peak into the future, a test drive of the team of tomorrow, a beta version of next year’s squad.

In the branding world, with online and software brands in particular, the expanded roster of not-yet-ready-for-primetime products is often introduced to the market under cover of “Labs” or “Beta” designation. Intended in part to abdicate the brand from responsibility, a Labs or Beta label is kind of like saying: “Let the buyer beware.”

Like their MLB peers, these brands are saying: “stick with us,” “there are good things ahead,” “watch us grow.” Yet while baseball fans generally know that some new youngster taking the mound on a random September night is a work in progress, brands need to more overtly communicate this note of caution.

Bell Labs is really the godfather of the whole labs movement. In this traditional definition, Labs is really a euphemism for R&D. Some, like Yahoo and Mastercard, generally ascribe to this approach. Their Labs serve as a showcase, a peek behind the curtain to see some of the great stuff they’re working on—kind of like a September call-up in Major League Baseball. Others, like Google, take a more egalitarian view, actively inviting anyone to play in their “technology playground” and offer feedback, suggestions, recommendations. Adobe and Oracle do the same, albeit in walled playgrounds more suitable for developers, programmers and other professional users.

Gregg Jeffries Baseball Card

These differing definitions and the market expectations they engender are key considerations in Labs branding. Another key consideration: Gregg Jefferies and the legacy of unfulfilled promise.

In the late summer of 1988, Gregg Jefferies stormed into Shea Stadium and Mets fans were enthralled. He hustled; he flirted with .400; and he had a beautiful swing. But, beta Gregg Jefferies was an illusion. The kid just set his own bar too high – and fans were simply not satisfied when Jefferies came back down to earth the following spring, and stayed there. Unable to handle the pressures of his early promise, a few public meltdowns sealed his Mets fate. When Gregg Jefferies was ultimately shipped out after the 1991 season, fans were happy to see him go, but we still wondered about that phenom from September of ’88.

Perhaps the tale of Gregg Jefferies was one reason Gmail spent more than five years in beta (and in Google Labs), despite tens of millions of users and a solid third place in the webmail market. Google took its own sweet time before officially promoting the service to the Bigs in 2009– and even with a handful of service outages and the general discontent of privacy activists, Gmail continues to outperform peers in growth and usage metrics.

If only the Mets could have kept Gregg Jefferies in beta status for five years; he could have been the toast of the town.

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