Google’s 2013 Science Fair: Brand or Reputation?

Remember how proud you were of your 7th grade science fair project? Maybe you received a certificate, some kind of ribbon, a medal even? Well, that’s not what this is. Once again, Google has decided to launch this rite of passage to new heights with its third consecutive Google Science Fair. Partnering with CERN, the LEGO Group, National Geographic and Scientific American, the Internet giant invites 13 to 18-year-old students to submit their ingenious ideas in hopes of changing the world.

We have heard other companies declare their roles in changing the world (Facebook Stories anyone?), but I am curious how well Google’s Science Fair aligns with the company’s overarching mission statement. To refresh everyone’s memory, the brand’s promise is stated on the Google website as such: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

The Google Science Fair emulates this promise in various ways. First of all, Google is probably assuming that these children will be employing its tools (search, scholar, etc.) for their endeavors. The brand is thereby extended as a beneficial component of children’s lives, a key to knowledgeable doors and a propeller of education. Parallel to this is the availability of the competition in 13 languages and the selection of 90 finalists from the Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe/Middle East/Africa (one-third from each region). As with many of its products, Google imparts the competition to candidates from multiple cultures.

But what about the other facets of this project? Google, after all, is a corporation with resource requirements and social responsibilities. Google can utilize this science fair as part of its recruiting process, discovering future candidates for its mega-erudite company; in fact, I cannot remember having a science fair past the age of 13, so Google’s age requirements are definitely higher.  Furthermore, executing such projects (along with gifting illustrious prizes) depicts Google’s involvement in society and their support of “social, environmental [and] health issue[s].”

While the former paragraph showcases Google’s outgoing message, the latter depicts aspects representing the brand’s reputation and public expectation. This is the input feed, a push from society similar to peer pressure or gossip. Although it is part of the brand’s overall image, this is not necessarily what Google willed into societal opinion, but rather what society wills of it.

Deciphering the line between brand and reputation is not simple. Even the presentation of Google’s Science Fair can be confusing—it may be intended to bolster children’s passion for education, but it is also drawing attention to Google’s products. For example, the fair includes several Google+ Hangouts with famous scientists that are meant to “help inspire, mentor and support students throughout the competition and beyond.”  The brand wants to unlock and share the world’s information, but it may be the company’s reputation that forces it to do good deeds outside of its norm.

Since the Science Fair is such a great opportunity for students, it is difficult to criticize Google for simultaneously advertising its own benevolence and products. However, I wonder how much a brand can deviate from its origins because of public opinion. Is there a point at which public opinion does not matter anymore or has been taken too far into consideration? And, most importantly, can we truly unveil whether Google’s Science Fair is part of its brand (personality and desires) or its reputation (forced actions)? Visit the official Science Fair website and judge for yourself.