Google introduced the Pixel 3 on Tuesday. Lots of improvements over the last version, but there's a curious thing: Reviewers have called it both too expensive and aggressively priced (as in intentionally low, at least compared to competitors).

That, in a nutshell, is the essential branding problem Google faces. It wants a strong brand in hardware, but its pricing strategy can't be all things to all people.

Here's Google's video about the Pixel.

It emphasizes features like taking a picture to shop for something online, improved selfie support and better camera functions, AI assistance, call screening, wireless charging, and more.

Up until now, Google has not even managed also-ran status in smartphone sales. IDC's Q2 numbers bundle the company's phone sales into "other." The Pixel has run less than 1 percent of U.S. market share, as the Wall Street Journal reported early in the year.

Google badly needs substantial lines of business that aren't dependent solely on advertising, which can go as quickly as it arrives. And its investors need significant spending in things like acquisitions and hardware development to pay off in a big way.

Even with major spending on marketing and a distribution deal with Verizon, Google hasn't been able to really grab attention. The Pixel 3 seems to be a combination of two types of branding. One is the device itself and says "high." The other is the price -- "low." They don't really seem to match up in a bigger context.

On one hand, as an example, you have David Ruddock's review at Android Police. Here's a snippet:

With the Pixel 3, it's a return to form: the smaller phone looks the part of a premium handset and really does just feel like a baby 3 XL. Naturally, the battery is smaller, and the display is a full HD 18:9 panel (a much nicer one) rather than the XL's denser quad HD, but no one's going to notice that. The lack of a display notch is probably preferable for most people, and the addition of wireless charging, dual front-facing cameras, improved front-facing speakers, along with a suite of new camera features bespoke the Pixel 3 make this a meaningful upgrade over last year's phone.

The headline read, "Probably the best 'small' smartphone in years". But then came the pricing kick: "At $800, the Pixel 3 sits a full $180 above an unlocked Galaxy S9 here in the US, and I won't lie to you: that's just too much money. Google has jumped the proverbial shark on pricing this year, and I think it's going to bite them harder than they expect."

Now for Dan Gallagher at the Wall Street Journal. He also mentioned price: "The Pixel 3 starts at $799--a $200 discount from the starting price of Apple Inc.'s iPhone XS that features similar specs."

This is a tough conflict to resolve. Not surprising, as pricing is a difficult aspect of branding and promotion. We've already seen that many millions of people are willing to buy iPhones that start at $1,000 or more. Apple has staked out the luxury/upper end part of its markets for many years.

Samsung's Galaxy series have won many converts, but it doesn't have the cachet to meet Apple's branding. As Ruddock noted, Samsung has been discounting through 2018, probably to gain more market share. But once that happened, Google was in trouble.

By staking out a price between the two, was Goggle saying that the Pixel was better than the Galaxy but worse than the iPhone, a type of price-quality assumption many people would use? It's as if Google doesn't know what it wants the Pixel to be, other than loved. And in marketing, that isn't enough.

Published on: Oct 9, 2018