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Adventures in Web Branding: Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

Many of the Internet’s highest-profile failures also once enjoyed status as the hottest website, software, or trend around—Netscape, Napster, or MySpace, for example. But there are good reasons why, say, we all watch videos on YouTube instead of on Real Player—and lessons to be learned in the aftermath.

Some of these brands failed not of their own accord, making an ad hoc go of it in the Wild West of the Web, but after they were purchased by larger enterprises in order to cash in on what was perceived as a brand with “buzz,” “it factor” or a progressive sensibility. Instead, these companies were the walking dead even before they were bought up by others looking to capitalize on a famous name.

Even if you don’t wield the cash to buy a startup, it still pays to recognize when a brand has irrevocably lost its zip. Why? To apply the lessons from that company’s failure to their own business, and/or so as not to invest in a company that shows the warning signs of losing luster. Here are some examples of companies that kept fresh, kept progressive and stayed relevant to its audience by updating a brand…and some that rested on their laurels and thought that brand-name-recognition was enough.

WebTV—$349 consoles that connected to a TV to allow for basic Internet access—launched to a lot of fanfare in 1996 as a way for non-computer people to get on the ever more popular Web. Microsoft acquired WebTV in April 1997 for $425 million at a time when it had only 56,000 subscribers. The base only ever got as high as about half a million users, but in 2001, Microsoft rebranded WebTV as MSN TV, after MSN, its web portal. Certainly by 2001, and as early as 1997, the future of Internet access didn’t lie in set-top boxes with dial-up connections—universities and corporations already had dedicated, super-fast “broadband” connections by that point. The Internet was growing more popular and capable of delivering more content. Microsoft instead invested half a billion dollars in a shrinking niche and named it after its neutral, non-specific homepage. Obviously telling the future is no easy task, but failing to recognize that consumers can change their habits, given a compelling new product, is a Microsoft has made again.

NetZero was the most recognizable and successful of a series of “free” Internet providers in the late 1990s. Dial-up access cost nothing to a customer, so long as they didn’t mind huge banners of ads draped across their screen during online sessions. By 2001, it was charging customers if they used the service too much, and, as was the problem with WebTV, broadband was the future anyway. In 2012, NetZero relaunched as a broadband Internet provider, once again providing service that was “free” so long as users bought costly equipment or didn’t exceed data limits. NetZero missed the mark here by reviving an old brand name that didn’t enjoy positive recognition, and it also revived an outdated service into a world in which flat-rate Internet access rates is the norm.

Branding errors occur outside of the e-commerce world, of course. Coca-Cola has unsuccessfully attempted to brand its Tab product several times. Tab is a highly recognizable name—launched in 1963, it’s one of the first successful diet colas—but it also became passé, the pink can of Tab ultimately a kitschy icon of 1970s dieting aids for women. Tab also carried a warning label from 1979 onward because it was sweetened with saccharine, found to cause cancer in laboratory rats (but not humans, and the findings may have been overstated). Diet Coke came along in 1982, which dropped the shunned Tab’s market share even lower.

But brand loyalties are so entrenched in soda that a company often will prefer to relaunch an old, failed brand than it is to create a new one. In 2006, more than 40 years after the launch of Tab, and 20 years after Diet Coke rendered it irrelevant, Coca-Cola briefly brought back Tab as Tab Energy, a taurine- and caffeine-based entry into the already crowded energy drink market. Like old Tab, Tab Energy was marketed to women, with ads showing successful, glamorous young women going to Hollywood hotspots, knocking back a can of Tab rendered in that not-quite-iconic pink. Tab Energy failed, perhaps owing to some combination of negative name recognition and lack of connection to the brand by younger consumers, or because the main consumers of energy drinks aren’t women. Like with NetZero, Tab failed to realize when a brand asset had become a liability.

Customers, particularly young customers, don’t want to associate themselves with yesterday’s brands—they want to be on the cutting edge or, in Internet commenter parlance, “first.” But that doesn’t mean that an old name can’t become relevant again.

Cracked was a ‘70s-era comics-and-humor magazine, essentially a clone and competitor of Mad. Re-launched as a humor and trivia website in 2005 (as well as a short-lived print component), today has 17 million unique visitors monthly who come for the site’s ultra-current snarky columns, funny articles, and Photoshop contests. Cracked stuck to its core competency—humor writing—but updated its style and approach for the Internet era. The lesson here: think about how to separate what you’re doing that works from what doesn’t work, and be willing to change accordingly.

Another possible example is Friendster. More popular in Asia than North America from early on, the social networking site battled rivals like MySpace and Facebook until 2009, when traffic dropped by 90 percent, following the (correct) conventional wisdom being that users had flocked to Facebook. Later that year, Asian Internet concern MOL purchased Friendster. In 2011, MOL relaunched Friendster as an online gambling portal. It did not delete user accounts or revamp its rolls, meaning that Friendster’s 115 million users can easily and seamlessly begin reusing the site… and spend money there. Whether it’s paid off for MOL, the company hasn’t said, but you can’t deny it’s a clever move. The lesson here: look for opportunities to find new uses for old assets. Whereas Coca-Cola tried to tweak Tab’s brand, MOL turned it into something else entirely.

The Internet economy model of the late ‘90s—pouring efforts and funds into branding in the hope of spurring traffic and profits—led to a dotcom bubble burst. The lesson there is that branding isn’t a profit-generator. But those that lasted—Google and Amazon especially—showed that what does generate both interest and profits is innovation. The key is to pay attention. Do market research. Analyze statistics. Research the current perception of your brand via market research, particularly among customers of those in the target audience. Have a vision, and heed the mistakes made by others.

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