Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Era of Bottom-Up Brands

The Era of Bottom-Up Brands
Google's Dominance Is Changing the Rules
By Which Brands Win Consumer Loyalty

One of my favorite stories in the history of Web business -- a chronicle by turns heroic and tragic, ambitious and doomed, shrewd and really, really dumb -- is that of Pathfinder, Time Warner's attempt to dominate the Web by building a common home for its various print titles.

Pathfinder began in late 1994, when the Internet was still largely the domain of scientists and academics, and as such was a bold effort. But by the time it was shuttered in 1999, it cost Time Warner some $75 million on paper and immeasurably more in opportunities lost while charging in the wrong direction. (It lives on here as a rather sheepish billboard for Time Warner properties -- I probably would have guessed that Coastal Living is "the Web site for people who love the coast." For a look at what used to be, check out the Pathfinder Museum.)

"The Pathfinder Way" should be shorthand for a particular flavor of brand confusion -- namely, that people know what corporation has the rights to a particular magazine, book, song, TV show or movie. Imagining that they do, or thinking they can be taught to do so, still trips up record labels, publishers and other content companies who only listen to voices inside their own building. But not to the extent it did during Pathfinder's heyday, when Time Warner media properties fought with the parent company for the right to establish Web sites branded with their own names.

The idea is obviously crazy now, but don't give Time Warner a break based on hindsight -- it was crazy then, too. You never needed a Web futurist to see that Time Warner's individual brands were better off on their own than subsumed under a corporate umbrella site with its own newly created brand. (If you'd like to continue down bad idea memory lane, here's what remains of Walt Disney's Go site, a halfhearted Pathfinder whose other legacy is extraneous characters added to Web addresses for Disney properties such as ESPN and ABC.)

It's fun to mock Pathfinder, and companies forget its lesson at their peril. But it's also easy to forget how different the Web was before Google arrived. In the early days, any good Web site about anything was of at least passing interest -- hence Cool Site of the Day, now a somewhat random portal. By giving people a reliable way to actually find what they were looking for, Google changed everything. And those changes haven't stopped coming.

A decade after registering its domain name, Google's name has become a verb for the service it offers. Seven years after it started to sell ads based on those searches, it's on track to top $15 billion in revenue for 2007. Riding on those big coattails is the industry of search-engine optimization, which has gone from an oddball curiosity for small businesses to something no organization with a Web presence can afford to ignore.

On today's Web, everything begins with Google -- and that's driving a sea change in how brands are built and succeed. While brands remain vital online, the old top-down model of building them (think of a new magazine launch) is increasingly irrelevant to the Web. Instead, Google's dominance allows and even encourages brands to be built from the bottom up, with their overall identity far less important than the little slices of themselves returned by Web searches and their position in search rankings.

These bottom-up brands already exist, and here's an easy way to identify them: You're more familiar with individual slices of their content than you are with their home pages -- some of which you may never have visited.


Has Google's dominance changed how you use the Web? How do you think branding is changing in a search-first online world? Join the ongoing discussion in the Real Time forum.There's About.com, a compilation of how-to guides you've undoubtedly used or at least encountered. There's YouTube, now part of the Google empire. And there's Wikipedia. If you've ever entered a given term and "wikipedia" in Google to bring the Wikipedia page to the top of your search results, you've summarized bottom-up branding rather succinctly. Odds are you became aware of these sites not because of some big marketing campaign, but by repeatedly encountering bits and pieces of them through search engines -- until you began to think of them as entities in their own right.

And more such brands are arriving every day.

At first acquaintance Hulu, the online-video venture between NBC Universal and Fox -- whose parent company has agreed to acquire the Online Journal's publisher -- feels like a whizzier version of the Pathfinder Way: It assumes consumers know what network a show is on and dresses that inside-the-building conceit up with a new brand name.

Ten years ago, that approach would probably have been fatal, and it still might be. But today it's far less important than how high Hulu's videos will appear in search rankings. (Hulu's distribution deals also help, though in that case bits of content are being pushed to consumers through various outlets, rather then pulled by them through search.) This raises the possibility that the Pathfinder Way may live on for years as a full-employment act for old-style brand marketers, who will soldier on without ever having to confront their own irrelevance.

A different example is presented by Associated Content, which recruits people to write about a huge number of specific subjects in hopes of attracting Web users performing searchers -- and by doing so, creating an inventory of interest to advertisers and content companies looking to supplement their offerings. (For a good portrait of the company, including the debate over its model and the presence of Google's Tim Armstrong on the board, see this July portrait by News.com's Elinor Mills.)

From its model to its no-frills name, Associated Content can sound utilitarian, particularly to veteran writers like me. But the company contends that many people performing a specific search will value specific information more than fancy wordplay: If you're going to Venice in August with kids, Joe Friday's workaday account of visiting Venice in August with kids may prove a lot more useful than a John Berendt travelogue. (Not to mention that it's snobbish to assume Joe Friday's account is workaday.)

As you'd expect, search is a significant part of Associated Content's strategy. But right now brand isn't, and that's because of how search has evolved. As with About, Wikipedia and YouTube, visitors to Associated Content are likely to arrive through search results instead of by calling up the home page -- entering through the side door instead of the front, if you will.

Asked why Associated Content even has a home page (it's here), CEO Geoff Reiss -- a veteran of Spy and ESPN -- confesses that "for a while I was toying with a home page that would just be a search box." He says the company does need a front door for everything from recruiting writers to giving potential partners a place to visit, but acknowledges that at this point "I don't think it's fundamental to our success."

And that may not be a bad thing, considering how many home pages have to serve as the point of entry for every part of their Web sites -- a single-entry strategy that Mr. Reiss sees as increasingly out of sync with how consumers want to use those sites. "If you look at the home pages on Web 1.0 sites, you can hear them groan under the pressure they're under," he says.

But wait! About and Wikipedia and YouTube are strong brands -- Google paid $1.7 billion for YouTube, after all. But rather than building on big, top-down marketing pushes, those sites evolved into strong brands by being repeatedly found through search and gradually creating customer awareness and loyalty. That's the new way of the online world, and the lead Associated Content hopes to follow.

"We have achieved critical mass without having to predicate the business on building a brand," Mr. Reiss says, adding: "We're of the mind that hundreds of thousands of positive experiences can define a brand better than just sticking a flag on top of a hill and saying, 'This is the brand.' "

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