What Google Inc. Risks With Its KitKat Name

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The tech world let out a collective "Huh?" this week as Google ( GOOG ) revealed the nickname to its upcoming version of its Android operating system.

Similar to Apple's ( AAPL ) branding of Mac OS X versions after various wild cats, Google nicknames each major Android release after a confectionary treat. And following in the alphabetical footsteps of Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, FroYo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Jelly Bean is...KitKat?

Breaking the pattern of generic desserts, Google has opted to go "full trademark" and dub Android 4.4 with the name of a candy owned by Nestle (OTCMKTS:NSRGY) and licensed by Hershey ( HSY ) in the United States.

The move reportedly came as a surprise not only for the public -- who, for years, held the assumption that the Android "K" release was going to be nicknamed Key Lime Pie -- but also among Google staffers themselves. Upon revealing the name, Google's Director of Android Global Partnerships John Lagerling told the BBC , "We kept calling the name Key Lime Pie internally and even when we referred to it with partners."

But the decision to form a partnership with the Nestle brand was also unexpected and spur of the moment. While the possibility had been discussed for roughly a year, Nestle Executive Vice President of Marketing Patrice Bula said, "We decided within the hour to say let's do it."

Along with the KitKat nickname, Nestle will hold a promotional event in 19 countries wherein 50 million KitKat bars will bear the lime green Android mascot on the wrapper and give customers a chance to win a Nexus 7 tablet and Google Play gift cards. A giant KitKat-themed statue of the Android mascot was erected on the Mountain View campus lawn -- standing beside the jelly bean and gingerbread men -- to cement the co-branding effort.

Although the partnership seems like it couldn't have occurred without one side paying out the nose for licensing, Lagerling revealed, "This is not a money-changing-hands kind of deal."

So, why has Google, a company so popular that its name doubles as a verb, entered into a deal that attempts to boost its brand awareness?

Considering the dearth of desserts that start with the letter K, everyone saw the "Key Lime Pie" nickname as a foregone conclusion. However, Lagerling and his team allegedly thought the name didn't have enough cachet to catch on with the public.

"We realized that very few people actually know the taste of a key lime pie," he said. "One of the snacks that we keep in our kitchen for late-night coding are KitKats. And someone said: 'Hey, why don't we call the release KitKat?'"

Sometimes corporate synergy comes just that easy.

But Google, of all companies, should know how risky such a branding effort can be. After all, we know how poorly it worked out earlier this year when the Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn film The Internship was released, a movie that's rated a very generous 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. Using its campus as the setting for a weak slobs-versus-snobs comedy that felt at least five to 10 years too late, Google only ended up looking lame and out of touch in the process.

Admittedly, the KitKat candy is far more timeless than the allure of the Frat Pack, but by effectively commercializing Android, Google risks alienating a very strong-willed and opinionated user base who greets every blatantly soulless ad campaign with a sneer and a cutting remark.

And already, that's begun to happen.

Upon the KitKat announcement, comment sections began overflowing with snide jokes about how a segmented chocolate candy underscores Android's fragmentation. Others mused that they couldn't wait for the Lucky Charms ( GIS ) version of Android. And some pondered what Google wouldn't have done for a Klondike Bar ( UN ).

But quips aside, Google abandoning a generic naming scheme for a trademark brand rubs many users the wrong way, especially when that brand's holding company is decidedly non-tech. For quite a few folks, the KitKat-themed imagery that accompanies the Android operating system just feels...wrong. For them, an Android mascot stylized as a wedge of pie is far more preferable to a segmented candy bar slapped with a corporate logo.

Unfortunately, for an operating system that's purportedly "open," Android lost much of its "openness" with this deal.

However, like many strange and off-putting ad campaigns, the KitKat nickname definitely has people talking, and even with a reported 1 billion activations worldwide and a market share that trumps Apple, Microsoft (MSFT), and BlackBerry (BBRY), the Android brand gets even more publicity and recognition with this move.

Until now, casual Android users didn't pay much attention to their operating system's nickname, let alone the version number. But they'll certainly have an idea once the KitKat promotions are underway. Google clearly sees that the gains from an instantly recognizable Android version far outweigh the sarcastic quips from online commenters.

And it certainly helps that KitKats are damn delicious.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Investing , Technology

Referenced Stocks: AAPL , GIS , GOOG , HSY , UN

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