Be the Stage, Not the Star — Marvin Chow
BY Future of StoryTelling — November 30, 2022

Today’s marketers are tasked with telling stories that not only represent their products, but that also empower their customers. As VP of Global Marketing at Google, Marvin Chow understands better than anyone how important it is for a brand to have a positive impact and help its users do the same. On this episode of the FoST Podcast, Marvin shares learnings on marketing for one of the biggest brands in the world.

Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:

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Additional Links:

• Watch these Google creative spots on YouTube:

• Learn more about Real Tone and safety with Google

• Are short-form or long form videos better for brands? Viewers and creators say both

Episode Transcript

Charlie Melcher:

Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, Founder of the Future of StoryTelling. I'm so glad to have you with me today for the FoST Podcast. If you're a new listener, welcome, and if you're a regular, welcome back. In either case, if you enjoy the show, we'd really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving us a positive review on your podcast platform of choice.

Consumers today expect more from brands than ever before. It's no longer enough for a company to create a better product than its competitors, we now also ask businesses to strive to create a better world. Young people in particular want the brands they support to be sensitive to the issues they care most about. The bigger the brand is, the more responsibility they have in the eye of the consumers, and there aren't many brands that are bigger than Google.

As Google's Vice President of Global Marketing, Marvin Chow oversees messaging for some of their most widely-known products like search, maps and shopping. He speaks from experience about the need for authenticity, genuine problem solving, and purpose-driven storytelling in order for a brand to find long-term success. I'm thrilled to have him on the podcast today to share some of his wisdom from over a decade at Google. Please join me in welcoming Marvin Chow.

Marvin, it's such a pleasure to have you on the FoST Podcast, welcome.


Marvin Chow:

Thank you. Thank you for having me. It's exciting. It's been a while since we've seen each other, so this is great to be here with you, Charlie.


Charlie Melcher:

So, I thought I would start by asking you how ... you've been at Google for, what, about 12 years now?


Marvin Chow:

Oh God, yeah, 12 years. A little over 12.


Charlie Melcher:

Wow. How has brand marketing evolved in this last 12 years? What have you seen change over time?


Marvin Chow:

I mean, a lot has changed. I mean, it's been a crazy 12 years. I mean, God, when you go back to brand marketing for let's say technology, companies like Google kind of pioneered this space, this idea that you could have an emotional attachment to a software service.

You go back to Parisian Love before I even got to Google, it was the ad that aired while I was interviewing at Google and kind of inspired me to come here. Dear Sophie, I think that kind of brand marketing to the sector was pioneered by Google and I think in a lot of great ways copied or evolved by tons of other software companies to really bring more than just transactional value, but a deeper emotional value.

I think for traditional brands, I mean, clearly the digital space and then the social media space has really evolved what does it mean to build your brand and how can you build your brand, and you have direct to consumer brands and things like that. So I mean, so much has changed in the landscape of how we do it, but I think for you and I who have been doing this for a really long time, the what we do hasn't really changed that much.

I mean, you think about even traditional, people still go to the movies, they still sit down, they watch a two hour movie, and that hasn't changed in decades. So I think the way we connect and how we tell stories kind of is the same, just the medium's a little different.


Charlie Melcher:

One of the things that changed with the media is just this idea that there's the possibility for two-way conversation, and I feel like Google does really sort of understand that and participates that way.


Marvin Chow:

I would agree to a point. I mean, I think you can take it too far, because I think that being iconic is taking people someplace new and really standing for something that is inspiring. One of the provocations we talk about is storytelling, which you speak so passionately about and story-making.

As a marketer, we kind of ask the question, I can tell a million people something, or if I could get a million people to say something about my brand, what becomes more powerful down the road? I think getting a million people to talk passionately about what you stand for is still one of the biggest opportunities in this new era.


Charlie Melcher:

I really so appreciate the importance of authenticity, I think it's at the core of great storytelling always. I've used this example a number of times on the podcast before, but it seems so relevant here. When we think about Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, and you think about the traditional journey of the hero, and one of the big problems I've always run into in talking to brands is that they often think that they're the hero, their product is the hero.

Actually, the shift has always been to try to get them to think about their customer as the hero. If they're lucky, their role is as the mentor or the supplier of the magic gift that helps them on their journey. I do think that's very true with the way that Google has provided a magic gift, a tool that has been incredibly valuable for people to be successful on their journey.


Marvin Chow:

As marketing has grown, as a function at Google, as new people join the company, I think that mindset that the product is the hero. The product is super important, don't get me wrong, but in the storytelling, the end user, the end person being the hero is something that we have to constantly remind people about.

Andy Berndt, who is the creator of the Creative Lab, did Persian Love, he has this saying, it's be the stage, not the star. Our job is to create this format, this platform for other people to be successful. I think that saying always sticks with me, because you kind of have to step back. I mean, even when we talk about brands and people having relationships with brands and loving brands, it's kind of marketing speak. It's kind of true, but it's kind of not true for everybody in that sense, so I think you have to really understand that.


Charlie Melcher:

How does your position with marketing and listening come back to the product? Has that ever then gotten you to change the products themselves?


Marvin Chow:

No, and that's a big part of marketing at Google and I think it's a big part of the brand, because one of the biggest touch points of the brand is the product, is the service, how you interact with that service. We kind of bridge that gap between making a thing, an engineering feed of innovation and then what does it actually mean to an end person. The closer that we can bring the insights of an end user upstream to the building of a thing, the better opportunity we have to make the whole thing work well.

I go back to one of the ones that is really common right now is Real Tone, Real Tone in terms of the calibration of dark skins. We all know the story from Polaroid in the early days, but that product feature started with a marketing person. I did not work on it, but I was there in Nigeria on a trip with that marketing person, Florian, when we had that insight that our cameras were not representing dark skin toned people well.

As a black man, he really felt this was a huge opportunity for us to help empower this community. He really pushed the product team, he pushed the brief, it took two years to get to that. That is the Holy Grail a lot of times of marketing is to really have a strong insight, really stand up for the user and the community to really make a change in a product that's going to help more people. So that's a huge part of building our brand, because if the product doesn't deliver on the promise, then everything kind of falls short.


Charlie Melcher:

It seems that in the best of the stories that you tell, there's a real kind of empathy for different users or consumers of your products. A great example I think was that CODA commercial that you created. Can you tell us about that?


Marvin Chow:

Yeah, I mean, CODA was a wonderful piece of work that we made. I mean, CODA stands for Children of Deaf Adults. I think so many of the great pieces come from real life stories. So the person in the spot works at Google, he's a Googler, and it was his story around growing up as a child of deaf adults, of deaf parents and how helpful so many of the new tools we were building were, were from close captioning to the importance of Google Meet, to just different types of innovations that we were making were being helpful in his life.

I think those stories are oftentimes the things that make ... because they are human. I think when you're a company that help a billion people, you have to step back and say, "Well, make it tangible, make it real." Ironically, we kind of call it for everyone, because it's the idea that there is one story of how our technology is helping somebody.

But that story's so relatable, it shows how our products are for everyone. They can help anybody and everybody in the world, and that's kind of where those things come from. That is that barometer of it being not so niche that you can't relate to it, but not so generic that it just feels like, oh, people use search, 'cause that's always the tension, I think.


Charlie Melcher:

But you're talking here about one of the universal truths of good storytelling, which is that there is the universal in the specific, right? So, you can tell the story of one family, one young man who grew up with deaf parents and maybe there's only some hundreds of thousands or few millions of people who have that situation, and yet it's a story that everyone somehow can relate to it.

That makes me think of a question about the challenges you face on a global level. Google's a global brand, you're trying to tell these stories or relate to people in many different cultures and many different languages and around the world. How do you think about reaching that global audience from where you sit in California?


Marvin Chow:

Yeah. No, I mean, this is the problem everybody has around the world and we have this thing called the GRL framework. It's global, regional, local. I think some work starts as US work and then it has the ability to transcend globally. I think Real Tone was one of those, where I think in a lot of markets it's very relevant and it's a universal story that has truth in it.

We are lucky enough as a company to be old enough and have seen the global opportunity, where we have marketing people I think in, I don't even know how many countries, but all over the world we have marketing people, which allows us to, one, have insights from communities all over the world and bring work to market that's very specific to those communities. So, we look at the CODA spot and it's about how technology's being helpful for people. That's kind of the brief almost in some ways.

In Australia, they'll take that same brief and they'll have to ask themselves, how is technology being helpful to my communities in Australia? There's a ton of great work we're doing out of there that's showing, one that I remember, I can't remember what it's called, but it's a spot where it's all about a neighbor who's helping her elderly neighbor shop for groceries. But I think she's Asian, the neighbor, and so she's got to go to the Asian grocery store, use Translate, use all these different kind of tools to find the things that her elderly neighbor wants.

But that is an insight and a story that's very relatable to the community in Australia, but it has the same ethos, because that's the story. The story has the same, the brand has the same ethos of technology being helpful to people and communities. I think that knowing when to go local and when to go global, it's the ongoing discussion in so many ways.


Charlie Melcher:

So, brand purpose is such a hot topic these days. How do you think about being successful with that?


Marvin Chow:

Yeah. No, I think this is something we've talked a lot about and I've talked a lot about, and I think it's not complicated, but I think it's touchy. I think people have purpose fatigue and I think that you really have to step back and understand what does it mean for your company. For us, there's a couple things that I think about.

One is really starting with your core views and not with the news. This idea of just chasing the latest movement and saying what is your role in that I think is not healthy for any brand, and we've seen a ton of brands get burned, but really saying, here's what a group of people are saying or wanting, here's what we stand for and what we can offer. If there's an overlap, you should 100% get involved. But if you don't have a point of view or you don't believe it's long-term for you, you should be comfortable just not getting involved, and that's okay.

I think the second thing is so many brands are just talking about purpose, but the hard part is really as a business, are you talking about your values and principles, but also solving problems that contribute to the positive solutions of those principles? For us during COVID, we talked a little bit about this with black-owned businesses, we believe in equity, we believe in technology for all. We saw the rise of Black Lives Matter during COVID, that searching for black-owned businesses on Google doubled.

There was no easy way to do that, and so we were the ones that went to the product teams and worked with the teams to say, this should be a feature that we have that you can actually identify as a black-owned business and search under that. We've taken that and it's gone very well, and we've extended that to Asian-owned businesses and LGBTQ-owned businesses and women-owned businesses, because it's an insight that is universal, but it started with the black community.

So solving those problems, like Real Tone we talked about, we can't just make an ad that says there should be equity amongst this thing, but we have to be able to show that we are putting our efforts, our resources behind solving those problems too.

Then the third, and we talked about this earlier too, is you know me, I'm like authenticity. The more you can speak authentically about your purpose around what you believe and what you've invested in and how you're actually doing things and have proof in that, whether they're people or customers or products, that resonates with people.

It's like the show Don't Tell. Don't tell me you believe in equity or don't tell me you believe in empowering groups, show me how you are doing that in that sense. So, I think that show don't tell around authenticity is incredibly important to really make sure that you're cutting through and connecting with people.


Charlie Melcher:

How do you deal with negative feedback to the brand?


Marvin Chow:

There's no negative ... no, I'm kidding. I mean, it's a great question and I think that every marketing lead around the world has to look at this. What is the criticism of the brand? What is the criticism of the product? I think we look at it as everything is well-grounded. I think that in a space that's moving as fast as the technology sector, there are going to be areas always where we can improve.

So when you look at things like privacy as an example or security, everything from the regulator point all the way down to the everyday consumer, we are trying to figure out one, are we doing the right thing? Are we doing things that we should not be doing, whether intentionally or unintentionally? How do we make sure that we are living our values first and foremost?

We now can say we don't sell your data. That's something that we are very proud to say. The data that we have, anything about you, it doesn't get sold anywhere around the world. It took time to make sure that that was true. It took time. We wanted to say it, but it took time and work to say is that true at every nook and corner of the company? I think now as an example, we're looking at a lot of the data concerns that people have are not about pure privacy, but it's about personal data.

They read about hacking, they read about data breaches with credit card companies. They're worried that their personal data is at risk of going to the dark web. That's one of the biggest concerns when they think about privacy. That comes down to security. Is your Gmail secure? Is your account secure? I think the team has been spending a lot of time, the actual security engineering team spends tons of time making sure Google as a company's secure, and your data, your photos, your mail, your drive are secure. With that, we've been now able to say, look, we keep more Americans safe than any company in the world.

I guess to answer your question, I think we look at the insights, we look at the negative feedback to understand is it well-founded? We try to correct everything that we can that makes sense. Going back to our original point, that authenticity of wherever we end up with actually sometimes makes great storytelling of what do we do, but we can't tell the story if we don't fix the actual problem that someone has a concern about.

Charlie Melcher:

Are there examples of you having not had success with a product line or having to tell the story of a product line and any interesting learnings that have come from that?


Marvin Chow:

Yeah, I mean, I'm sure there are. I mean, look, I like to tell the story, I mean, I started Google in Asia and then I moved to America in 2000 and moved back to America, I think, in 2012 to come work at Mountain View, and the first product I worked on at Mountain View was Google+. That was an exciting and insane product launch situation that I learned so much in. I think you could argue, obviously it's not around anymore, that it was a failure, it didn't work out, however you want to put it. I think that we learned so much around user insight to how do we tell the story, what is the product market fit?

There's not one thing that went wrong or right with that situation, but I think that is a really good example of we had really good insights around the market, we knew where things were going, but we couldn't get ahead in that sense, we couldn't hit the mark on that. So, that's a really large one. I mean, I think I've definitely worked on products that did not make it that had great marketing attached to it. That's always the case, but yeah, so I mean, it has happened a bunch.


Charlie Melcher:

Well, let's talk a little bit about the way that short form video has changed people's expectations about how they consume their stories or how they like to consume their stories. It's obviously had a huge impact on film and television and streaming, it's a big part of your business. Where do you think that's headed as a trend?


Marvin Chow:

I mean, I don't know. Once again this is not my area, but clearly it's a trend that is here to stay for a while. I mean, YouTube Shorts, they're doing a billion and a half monthly active users, I think 30 billion views a day or something like that. We just started I think a year ago, so I think clearly there is this appetite. It's hard to say whether it's just Gen Z's preferred way of consuming content, will they grow out of it at some point? But I think in some ways it serves different purposes in some ways.

I think when you think about the old days of film and TV, film was an escape, and I think that you were in a theater, no one was going to bother you and you could kind of immerse yourself in a story for a couple hours. TV was kind of like a mini escape, but it was always multitask, you're always doing something else. I wonder if is short form the new film or is the new TV? I don't have a good answer to that, but I think that will play out.

I mean, know personally it has eaten into a ton of my TV time. I don't really watch that much TV, but TV viewership has already dropped from 100 million to 75 million in the US, and I think someone was saying it's going to be 45 million people in a couple years. In the whole country, can you imagine just 45 million people watch TV? That's mind-blowing from when we grew up. So I think there's always going to be room, there's always going to be something new. I think that it's a wonderful format in so many ways, but it's not fulfilling in 100% of the ways, I think.


Charlie Melcher:

It makes me want to ask you about how you incorporate new trends, new technologies, new forms of storytelling into your plans as a marketer.


Marvin Chow:

Yeah, it's something we look at a ton and I think that it's six seconds to six hours now. We're making documentary films, multi-part series and we're making TikToks, we're making YouTube Shorts. So in that sense, it runs the gamut, but it goes back a little bit to the point I made in the very beginning. The components of the stories don't change that much, but the mediums change, so how you get something across in six seconds or 15 seconds?

It is figuring out the power of the medium and how it matches the story you want to tell, versus obviously if we're going to shoot a four-part documentary series, it's almost like anything else. A million people who watch 30 seconds or 15 second short out of 1,000 shorts you're going to watch or 10,000 people that sit down and watch a long-form documentary, they're going to have different experiences. Both are really important, but you have to understand how they fit into that marketing strategy in some ways.


Charlie Melcher:

So since we are all about the future of storytelling, I'm just curious if you are planning to be working in any of the most cutting edge new forms of media to tell your stories? Are you aggressively going into the metaverse? Are there big augmented reality plans? How about experiential? We also talk a lot about that at Future of StoryTelling. Can you share some of the thoughts you have about exploring in those cutting edge spaces?


Marvin Chow:

As stewards of the brand, I think there's a big part of us where we try not to chase every new trend of thing that happens. In some ways that's bad, in some ways that's good, but I think so many of these things get over-hyped and overblown so quickly that there's a lot of wasted cycles on them, and so I think we're not actively chasing a bunch of things.

I think when you look at things like the metaverse, to the best of my knowledge, we don't have a lot of metaverse plans. I think the metaverse currently is super hard to define. I think you probably saw Evan Spiegel's comment on it. It's something that we educate ourselves 100% though. We've met with the Meta team, we've met with a number of other teams to understand, well, what is it? But I think if it cannot really serve our storytelling need, if it doesn't solve a gap in the marketing plan that we have, the pressure to use it is different in that sense.

So I think that in those areas, I think same with go with Web 3, in terms of we're not building NFTs and things like that like some other brands. It's not because we don't know how, it's not because we're not interested in it, we just are not sure what the value of it is yet.

I think augmented reality is something, from a company point of view, I think if you saw things like Google I/O or things that we talk about, we think this is definitely an opportunity or an area that's really interesting moving into the future. It's still super early.

I would say it is our job to be educated. We have met with a lot of these companies, we talk to a lot of these providers, because we want to understand, well, what is it? But then when we look at our end goals, if it doesn't line up, it's like anything else. We maybe don't run a lot of print in a lot of areas. It's not because we don't know how to run print, it's not because we don't know what it makes sense, we just know that in certain aspects of the business, print is not the best option. In other aspects of the business, print is the best option to tell that story. We have a lot of great data. So, it comes down to just, I think, really being strategic about how we tell our stories versus just the next thing.


Charlie Melcher:

Let me ask you about what keeps you up at night. What is the biggest challenge for someone with a big important job like yours at Google?


Marvin Chow:

I mean, I have two girls, nine and 11, so I sleep pretty well. I mean, they keep me busy along with the day job. But I mean, I think particularly in the time we're in now with the polarization of wealth and the economic situation that people are in, what is the role that we can be playing for people in that sense?

I mean, we are in the luxurious position of providing mostly free services, whether it's maps or search or photos or Gmail, and what more would people want from those services in times where things are harder things, I mean, money's tighter, whether you're looking to buy or sell a house or figuring out what to cook for dinner.

I think that context to the role we play in culture and society I think is really important, 'cause I think it's so risky now for brands to come off as too woke in that previous day of trying to be something they're not, or tone deaf in terms of not really understanding what people are going through on a daily basis.


Charlie Melcher:

It's interesting to hear you say that, because I sense this feeling of responsibility that is almost the kind that one would think of from government, whereas the government might be the place to think of helping people solve their job problems or some of these bigger economic issues and trends. When you get I guess to your scale, to your size as a company as a global brand, you really are starting to think just about the wellbeing of citizens at large.


Marvin Chow:

Yeah, I mean, we're not a government, we're not a nation state, obviously. I think with the products that we have and the amount of people we interact with, we do have a responsibility as a part of our mission to be helpful in that sense, but I think we have to think about it in ways that, one, are unique to us. In so many ways, increasing, increasing in the world we live in, it's going to be in partnership with governments, it's going to be in partnership with legislators or other large companies, because at the end of the day, not one company can have that much impact.

At the same time, I don't know the exact number, but when you look at Gen Z, I think it's 70% of people think that companies can have a more positive impact on society than governments. I think particularly in America, we are in a place where young people are losing faith in the government, which is not a good thing. Their relationship more daily is with the companies, they don't think about their relationship with the government on a regular basis. So there is that opportunity, but it's always going to be a collective.

I think climate change is a great example of a lot of the work we do is building tools that allow cities or countries or businesses to understand their climate impact or make changes on the impact that they're having in that sense. That's always been, once again, even to the first point, our strong point of not being the star, but really building things so others can make good decisions and have a more positive impact.


Charlie Melcher:

In a world that's just constantly changing, and we know that what we're discussing today and even the way we're talking about it and the media we're using, it's all changing so quickly. In a world where change is the constant, how do you stay on top of that?


Marvin Chow:

It goes back to whether you want to call it curiosity, growth mindset, experimentation, whatever you want to call it, I think the hardest part about being a leader is being open that you don't know everything, and it's one of the things that has really humbled me at Google. I get to work with some of the smartest people on the planet across a range of AI, AR, search, maps and a range of topics that I am not an expert in.

I think the more we can have that mindset of learning and experimenting on whatever medium is next, like I said, today we're talking about short form video. We do this podcast in two years, we're going to be talking about AR, we're going to talk about the metaverse, [inaudible 00:29:44] about something else. So educating yourself and not jumping on the bandwagon, but being open to understanding I think is really important.


Charlie Melcher:

Thank you so much, Marvin. This has been great. I really, really enjoyed our conversation and so appreciate your making the time to be with us at FoST.


Marvin Chow:

No, it was great to see you again. It's always great to chat and I think these are the kinds of conversations we need to be having more of, so thanks for having me.


Charlie Melcher:

Many thanks, again, to Marvin Chow for being on today's podcast. To learn more about what Marvin and his team are working on at Google, please visit the links in the episode's description, and a warm thanks to you for listening. If you enjoyed the podcast, please consider becoming part of the Future of StoryTelling family by signing up for our free monthly newsletter at

The FoST Podcast is produced by Melcher Media in collaboration with our talented production partner, Charts & Leisure. I hope we'll see you again soon for another deep dive into the world of storytelling. Until then, please be safe, stay strong, and story on.