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AOL sheds its brand to draw specialty audiences

Posted by Mort Greenberg on May 18, 2008

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May 17, 7:46 AM (ET)


NEW YORK (AP) – Unless you’re looking carefully, you’ll likely miss the fact that the new Asylum Web site for young men is a creation of Time Warner Inc. (TWX)’s AOL. Same for WalletPop on personal finance, Spinner on indie music and StyleList on fashion.

The AOL brand is taking a back seat as the company long associated with dial-up Internet access for the masses quietly launches dozens of sites targeted at specialized audiences.

AOL figures that to grow its audiences – and draw additional advertising the company crucially needs to offset plunging revenue from its shrinking base of Internet access subscribers – it must break from a one-size-fits-all model and let its specialty sites set their own designs and editorial tone, shedding the AOL brand when necessary.

Bill Wilson, AOL‘s executive vice president for vertical programming, said the company has been retaining the AOL name for some sites – AOL Body is one, after research showed women 25 and up respond well to the brand.

And the brand isn’t completely invisible even if AOL isn’t part of the site’s name. There’s usually a small AOL logo somewhere, along with links to other AOL sites. The right mix, Wilson said, is the product of research on what makes the most sense for consumers.

Take Asylum, which has grown into a leading site for young men since its December launch. The name was chosen partly to convey humor and irreverence.

“If we put it out as AOL Men, we got the feedback it wouldn’t connect,” said Mike Rich, a senior vice president who oversees Asylum and other specialty sites. “People just didn’t connect this type of content with the AOL brand.”

Wilson said AOL‘s unbranding can help potential visitors know that the site isn’t part of its subscription service, which AOL started breaking down in late 2004 in favor of free, ad-supported sites.

AOL parent Time Warner was more blunt in a regulatory filing:

“If AOL cannot effectively build a portfolio of alternate brands that are appealing to Internet consumers, AOL may have difficulty in increasing the engagement of Internet consumers on its Web products and services. AOL believes that the ‘AOL‘ brand is associated in the minds of consumers with its dial-up Internet access service.”

AOL is by no means alone in promoting alternative brands.

Google Inc. (GOOG) has its homegrown Orkut social-networking service alongside its Picasa photo products and YouTube video-sharing site, both brands that came in through acquisitions. On the other hand, the Keyhole brand disappeared when Google bought the mapping concern, which became Google Earth.

Yahoo Inc. (YHOO), meanwhile, has Flickr photos and recently launched Shine for women.

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has a slew of brand names, including MSN, Hotmail and Live.

But unbranding represents a reversal for AOL after it tried to make its Moviefone and Netscape acquisitions more AOL-like. Type in “,” for instance, and you’re automatically redirected to “”

AOL currently implies legacy. It implies old. It implies out of date,” said Rob Enderle, an industry analyst with the Enderle Group. “If you want to attract a new, young audience to a site, attaching ‘AOL‘ is probably a kiss of death. They are wise to use the new individual property brands.”


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