(I wrote this originally in a slightly different form as a comment in response to the MarketingWeek article “The new domain names that will be a game-changer for brands” but I felt it deserved a more “permanent” home.)
For most brands, trying to establish their .brand in the minds of consumers will be like trying to drain the ocean with a drinking straw.
What most articles about the new top level domains (TLDs) fail to address or glibly gloss over is the fact that there are millions of existing .co.uk and .com websites that have been, are being, and will continue to be advertised and marketed by their owners, be they large corporates, SMEs, non-profits, individuals or other entities.
The owners of all these domain names have together spent hundreds of billions of pounds over the last 15 years burning into our collective consciousnesses that “a domain name (web address) is something that ends in .co.uk or .com”.
Talk about branding. “dot co dot uk” and “dot com” have brand recognition that a McDonalds or a Coca Cola marketing executive couldn’t conceive of in their wildest dreams, let alone bring themselves to believe they could one day emulate! It’s only because they’re not “owned” by a single entity that these expressions don’t head the “top UK brands” list year after year.
And it’s not just about online advertising – far from it. Every time a web address appears on TV, in a newspaper or magazine, on the side of a bus, on a billboard, on a tradeshow display, in a brochure or leaflet, on an invoice or letterhead, on a business card, as part of an email address, or in hundreds of other forms, it’s serving to reinforce those 2 giga-brands: “.co.uk” and “.com”.
This pent-up momentum in favour of the status quo will not be overturned by a .brand, no matter how large the company backing it. People often talk about winner-take-all monopoly scenarios in particular markets. Well, “.com” and “.co.uk” have just about as close to 100% mindshare as it is possible to get.
A string such as menu.mcdonalds will simply not be recognised as a web address by the vast majority of people who see it, and it certainly will be less memorable than the current method of going to mcdonalds.co.uk (the “instantly obvious” place to find information about McDonalds in the UK) then looking for the “Menu” link. At best, it will be considered a typo. At worst, it will make no impact of any kind.
ICANN is pulling out all the stops to market the new TLD concept, and it’s easy to see why. Here’s an organisation that’s collecting approximately US$0.25 a year from each .com registration, faced with the prospect of banking over half a million times as much (US$185,000) as an up-front fee in one fell swoop, for a single new TLD. And the ICANN annual renewal fee of around US$25,000 per new TLD is the equivalent of what they bring in from 100,000 .com renewals.
Put another way, ICANN only has to sign 1,000 brands up to the concept of getting “their” TLD to set up an annual revenue stream equal to all the revenue it’s currently pulling in from the 100,000,000 .com registrations.
No wonder they’re pounding the drum on this so loudly! What’s not to love, from their point of view?
Marketing agencies and brand consultants love the idea as well, because they know it will be an excuse for their clients to spend billions on trying (and – whisper it now – failing) to rebrand their web addresses. And there will be relatively little comeback if they “fail” because each brand will be executing its own unique strategy to promote its .brand, so when things fall apart it will be impossible to set up a straight “apples to apples” comparison with other companies working on their .brand promotions, thus negating any chance of finger-pointing.
However, it’s time to face reality. Global .com alternatives such as .info and .biz have been around for a decade, yet have failed to gain significant recognition despite having a combined registration base in the millions. More recently, extensions such as .mobi have appeared with great fanfare and excitement, then effectively disappeared from view again, without eliciting as much as a shrug from the majority of consumers who have remained oblivious to their existence.
And so it will come to pass for .brand extensions too. The questions any organisation considering a .brand strategy needs to ask itself are these: “Are we ready to flush millions of pounds away trying to hold back the tide, or will we heed the lessons of internet history and past TLD introductions and stand aside, while we watch our competitors squander their resources? Do we continue to promote our existing web address, which we have pushed in every piece of marketing we have done over the last decade or more, or do we throw all that momentum on the bonfire that is .brand?”