LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Google has taken the unusual step of using real-world advertising to promote its Chrome web browser in Europe ahead of a regulatory change that will make it easier for consumers to switch Web browsers.
In a departure from its usual dependence on viral and word-of-mouth marketing, Google is running a billboard and newspaper ad campaign for its Chrome browser in the streets and underground train stations of London, Paris and Amsterdam.
The campaign comes as the European Union is gearing up to implement its so-called browser ballot, which will allow users to actively select the program they will use to surf the Internet when they use their computer for the first time.
It is also a sign of Google's increasing willingness to engage with traditional media -- in this case ad agency Omnicom, which is managing the campaign -- many of whom are upset at what they see as Google's profiting at their expense.
Chief Executive Eric Schmidt has said recently Google wants to help publishers survive the transition online.
"Two years ago, I think there was a Google way. You either took it or left it," says Chris Hayward, head of UK trading at media buyer ZenithOptimedia. "My personal opinion is that now they're becoming much more commercially sensitive."
The browser ballot was proposed by Microsoft as part of a settlement of a European Union antitrust dispute that was initiated by browser maker Opera and entered by Google as an interested third party.
"Consumers think that the "e" you see on your desktop is synonymous with the Internet. That's a position that's very good for Microsoft and difficult for Google," said analyst Ross Sandler of RBC, referring to Microsoft's Internet Explorer icon.
By pushing its Chrome browser, Google is trying to change consumer perceptions, and mount a real challenge to Microsoft's dominance of the desktop computer.
"We think browsers are really important, in fact perhaps the most important part of your computer," said a Google spokesman.
"Our recent marketing campaign is a part of this overall investment in browsers, through which we hope to help make the Web faster, more useful and more secure."
In Paris, one billboard lists what a person does with Chrome as he impulsively decides to book a trip to the soccer World Cup: watching videos on YouTube, chatting with friends, looking for plane tickets to Johannesburg, then tweeting his decision.
"Twenty-one tabbed windows open, zero bugs, one web browser," the ad reads.
But despite Chrome's superior performance in many respects, such as speed of loading pages, it has failed to gain meaningful market share since coming out just over a year ago.
According to NetMarketShare statistics published on Monday, Chrome had just 5.2 percent of the global browser market in January, behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer at 62.2 percent and open-source Mozilla Firefox, which had 24.4 percent.
Under the measure to take effect in mid-March, European users of Microsoft Windows, which runs nine out of ten of the world's PCs, will be given an explicit choice of 12 browsers.
Some analysts are skeptical it will significantly change consumer behavior.
"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if Chrome comes pre-loaded on a computer or not," said Laura Martin, an analyst who covers Google at Soleil Media Metrics. "Consumers are fickle and change browsers easily."
Increasing market share will be crucial if Google is to succeed in creating a new Web-based operating system built on Chrome that could one day challenge Microsoft's Windows.
"It's very heated in the sense of wanting to try to gain customer loyalty through the whole range of products from the browser to the operating system to applications like email," said analyst Sheri McLeish of IT research firm Forrester.
RBC's Sandler says: "I think they want to create some buzz and some awareness ahead of the larger product launch, which is the operating system expected later this year."
Also to boost Chrome use, Google struck a deal with Sony last year to pre-install Chrome on certain computers.
Google declined to say how much it was spending on the European advertising campaign. Omnicom did not return repeated calls for comment.
Additional reporting by Alexei Oreskovic in San Francisco; Editing by Erica Billingham