In the beginning…
Not to sound too King James-ish, but for much of the in the past (as far back as 1602) corporations branded their identities on simple descriptions of what they did or who their founders were. This made it easy to let your brand market what you did. The examples are easy to find: Dutch East India Company, American Telephone & Telegraph, General Electric, International Business Machines, Ford Motor Company, Hughes Aircraft, etc. You did not need to ask what kind of business Hughes Aircraft was…
As a result any new company could simply identify themselves based on what they did. This was easy.
Then came D-U-N-S
As markets became more and more connected (mostly in terms of shortness of travel time vs. length of distance) we self-organized around registration in business directories (such as D&B’s Data Universal Numbering System) to manage our corporate identities. This made it easier to manage contracts (ownership and liability) and taxation. It did make it a little harder to link your company’s identity and brand (as someone else could already have your desired DUNS entry). However, it was very easy to make a small edit to your legal company name for registration purposes without fundamentally changing how you managed your brand. This was because multiple companies or brands were physically able to use the same title words in two different advertisements, telephone book entries or physical location signs. Think of all the businesses with the name “AAA” or “United” in them; no one ever confused AAA Accounting with the Automobile Association of America.
Now newly emerging companies had to be more creative, sometimes separating how they named themselves legally with how they identified themselves in the marketplace. This was not too difficult, however.
Expansion of true international branding added complexity
Around this same time, companies also began to market themselves in broader, more multi-cultural ways. This led to many “Lost in Translation” problems – ranging from names that meant something undesirable to names that were too market focused. In response many companies re-titled themselves and their registration, making their acronyms their names or new picking names that did not have an alternate meaning in the language of any of their emerging market.
Newly emerging companies and brands now not only had to be unique, but have names that would let them expand globally without re-branding.
Then came the Internet (Actually: Then the Internet became ubiquitous)
Given that you are reading this on a blog, I don’t need to explain how domain names work. What is more interesting is to examine their impact on branding…
Two companies cannot share the same domain name (whereas they can both have different signs in different places with the same name for their business). Prior to 1997, Internet domain names were free. A company called Network Solutions managed their assignment on behalf of the United States’ National Science Foundation. The biggest challenge was manage what happened with someone “squatted” on a domain (e.g., some 14-year-old-kid bought the name that was the title of a major corporation).
To curb this, the NSF began charging for names (originally $100 per year). The weeks leading up to the switch from free to paid registration created a “land rush” that dwarfed Facebook’s username rush this morning. (Network Solutions had to actually push up the date due this influx and build a billing system in record time; I was part of the team that redesigned this system to clean up the unforeseen effects of this).
Once the dust settled, it was clear that companies had a new challenge: securing unique domain names to identify themselves and their brand. You had to pick a unique name, ensure it was compelling globally AND secure your domain name. Often this required a costly purchase in the emerging domain arbitrage market, difficult for small and emerging companies.
Then came the search industry
Eventually, the Internet became large enough that directories were far less efficient that search algorithms (I don’t need to rehash the Google vs. Yahoo! seismic shift here—it is covered well enough in many other places). This led to the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). As such, not only was now important to have a unique domain, you also had to have a brand name that was unique enough to show up readily in search results.
As an ironic aside, it is curious to note that nearly all of the original “Four Horseman of the Internet” have names that are terrible for SEO (luckily they were already established brands prior to SEO):
- Oracle – A common word. 127,000,000 hits on Google
- America Online – Not only tough outside the US, but two of the most common words on the Internet (America has 919,000,000 hits on Google, Online 3,790,000,000)
- Amazon – Another common work (860,000,000 hits on Google). Luckily their brand name is a major consumer destination domain: do you ever need to search where to find amazon.com?
- EMC – This one is much better (only 31,500,000 hits on Google—however almost all are on EMC Corp, not Einstein’s formula or “Eastern Management Consulting”)
If you are a new company and pick a name with a bad SEO rank, it is impossible for people to find you unless they–
- Know your domain (they do not, that is why they are Searching) or
- Enter a multi-key Search (something most non-technologists do not regularly do)
As a result of SEO, many emerging companies began to “make up” words that would get good SEO results for their names. This made getting unique names easier, but made it harder to understand what a company was. Hulu is a great example of this: I love the company and think the name is very fun; but when I (an early adopter) told people about the company, I had to explain what Hulu was and what it did.
Twitter added the first major Web 2.0 place to register your brand
Twitter enabled owners of brands to message one-on-one with their customers. This was great except it created another piece of territory you had to register and secure when setting up a brand. It also created a new market for Username Squatters (also called Brand Hijackers). However, Twitter has less than 30 million registered users (far smaller than the number of Internet domains at large). This, at least, makes the problem somewhat manageable.
With the addition of Twitter, small and emerging brands had a low-cost place to market themselves (I watch Guy Kawaski demonstrate this two weeks ago). However, they now had to find a compelling name that: 1) works globally, 2) maps to a unique DUNS registry, 3) maps to secure a unique domain, 4) has a good SEO rank and 5) has an available Twitter username
Facebook just expanded the Web 2.0 registry market 700%
One of the things I liked about Facebook was lack of usernames (I owned the systems that managed a large block of AOL’s namespace and was happy to see them circumvent the problems of managing uniqueness in a billion-plus entry namespace.) Now Facebook has usernames (yet another identity to register for and manage).
As many organizations use Facebook pages to manage their brands, they will now have to get accounts with usernames that protect their brand. As Facebook is 7x larger than Twitter, this has made this protection even harder than it was 36 hours ago.
So what does this mean for you?
If you are an established brand, go grab your Twitter and Facebook usernames now (I grabbed “Haughwout” three minutes ahead of someone else at 12:00:27am yesterday morning.)
If you are establishing a brand, you are going to have to navigate all the following hurdles:
- Pick a name that is compelling and descriptive (or at least thematically related to what you do)
- Ensure it has a unique DUNS entry or make the brand a subsidiary of the company with a unique DUNS entry (e.g., United is a subsidiary of the UAL Corporation)
- Confirm that it does not mean something you do not intend the language of other countries into which you might one day expand
- Go to a domain regisitrar and see if a desireable domain version of this is available (typing www.yourbrand.com into a browser is not sufficient)
- Check the SEO rank for your brand and domain name (e.g., adding “consulting” after a name that is already common will not give you a good SEO ranking)
- See if this name (or an easy-to-remember equivalent) is available Twitter (again, harder than typing www.twitter.com/yourbrand)
- See if this name (or an easy-to-remember equivalent) is available on Facebook
Wow! That’s a lot of work. By this time you can understand why your head of Marketing’s blood pressure just went up 20 points.
If you are thinking of a future brand, you may want to start now (before the Facebook Namespace gets too cluttered). Yesterday’s launch of the Facebook Namespace prompted me to do this (in support of a future goal to one day apply my expriences hands-on to help charities and and not-for-profits use cost-effectively technology to advance their causes). It only cost me $55 and four hours of creative searches across multiple databases.