It seems that any enterprise which reaches ubiquitous critical mass in contemporary culture starts to be looked upon with a wary eye, as if they were somehow less than good for society, the overgrown big brother mentality personified. Sometimes that point of view may be justified, other times not, but I think that there is an inherent human distrust of largeness, corporate or otherwise.
Let’s take a look at a few of these cases.
Starbucks has conquered the coffee market, both in terms of ubiquity and arguably, quality. There are over 8,000 stores worldwide and each one I’ve visited (on three continents) has consistently delivered the same high quality product that I’ve come to expect. They’re all company-owned, which allows them the tight control needed to produce consistent results.
Starbucks has been the butt of many jokes because of their constant presence. Witness the Seattle Space Needle with a Starbucks banner serving as the home and lair of Mike Meyers' evil villain in the Austin Powers movies. Christopher Guest poked fun in his movie, Best in Show, when two characters recounted meeting at Starbucks, “not the same Starbucks, but two Starbucks across the street from each other.”
But jokes aside, many people harbor a deep aversion to Starbucks based on size and what is perceived as predatory ubiquity. Some try to justify their fears and suspicions by knocking the quality of the coffee, saying that it has a burnt taste. Whatever the complaint is, and I’m sure many of you have heard them, the problem with their perception of the brand lies deeper than the surface.
Microsoft is a company everyone loves to hate. Even though the overwhelming majority of computer users in the world use the Windows operating system or their productivity software in their daily lives, the fact that there are not many alternatives is disquieting to them. Apple Computer fans have long held the evangelistical view that Apple’s products were “good” and Microsoft’s were “bad", but that is generally the view of the underdog when up against a powerful opponent. Of course, it doesn’t help that the much publicized antitrust trial revealed the innermost thoughts of an insecure CEO and his very competitive plans to snuff out his rivals. Microsoft is big, it’s everywhere and it is widely distrusted.
Google is the latest entrant in this field. Anyone who is online uses it every day, all day. Google’s indexing power, speed and simplicity allowed it to move in and supplant most competitors (besides Yahoo!, that is). The number of services Google has been introducing is staggering. They now offer email, an excellent feed reader, web statistics package, desktop search, mapping, video, blogging software, online calendar, newsgroup reading, photo sharing, Earth and satellite mapping/viewing, mobile/cell phone/maps/lookup/text messaging and much more. Last week they announced Google Checkout, an online payment service to rival PayPal. They’re also redesigning their indexing algorithms which has caused many people to complain as their sites have dropped in ranking. (This site until recently ranked between 40-50 when searching the word “guitarist”. Today it ranks down near 1,000.)
Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil”, but I wonder how long it will be before it’s viewed the same as Big Coffee and Big Software. After all, it’s only human.