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Branding the Web
Oct 28, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Branding the Web
by Michael Sippey

I haven't had much to say about the Cool Site of the Year awards, if only because I've been flippantly dismissing the whole event with a single sentence:

"I lost to a dead guy."

The category I was nominated in, Personal Site of the Year, was positioned as award for "individuals or small groups of people that made a difference," etc., etc. Never mind the fact that three of the five sites nominated weren't what I would consider "personal," since they have staffs of people maintaining their sites. And the one other truly "personal" site wasn't really a site at all, but rather a single page.

(Bitter much, Michael?)

Actually, no. And not just because I walked away from the event with a new QuickTake. But because the award illuminated something that I had been thinking about for quite a while. Brands matter. I didn't lose to because they have a picture of Timothy with Joey Ramone wearing a Beavis and Butthead t-shirt, I lost to because Timothy Leary has a fairly recognizable brand name. To say the least.

Way back when, the net was triumphed as the medium that would finally put the power in the hands of the "little guy." Anyone who could get their hands on a PPP connection and their arms around HTML was promised the fruits of "disintermediation." With a website you have direct access to those 30,000,000 or so web surfers -- all those folks who have PCs and pay for online services and must be college educated and have gobs of disposable income... And since you're small, you can move fast -- much faster than those megacorporations. Right?

Ha. What really happened is that while it took a bit longer for the big names to come on board, they did actually come. With deep pockets and guns blazing. And guess what. The net is not the disintermediating medium everyone thought it would be. Instead it's just another media outlet. With secure transactions. Faced with an innumerable choice of sites to visit, web surfers are choosing the brands that they know, whether it's Disney or Time Warner or Turner Broadcasting or the "way new" Wired Ventures.

Even the bottom-feeding entrepreneurs that registered every domain name in site are finding out the hard way that the big players can use brand names to get around their hijinks. Sure, some prankster may register in hopes of blackmailing the sugar-water giant into forking over big bucks, but did they remember to nab Or Domain names have turned out to be too malleable, and those blackmailers are now stuck with the $100 bill from InterNIC.

That's not to say that the media giants have it all figured out. What remains is for purveyors of popular brands to effectively leverage the power of the net. Because a strange thing happens when people who know a little HTML have too much time on their hands. They tend to put together entire web sites which are homages to their favorite products or stars.

Take Star Wars, for example. A quick Yahoo search gives a small glimpse into the subcult of Luke Skywalker wannabes that populate the web. About a year ago, priming for the re-release of the original trilogy, Lucasfilm went on a rampage, intent on ridding the net of copyright violatiors. Cease and desist letters were sent. Sites were shut down. And fans got pissed.

One fan put it this way... "The Sabacc Home Page and the Boba Fett Home Page believe that Lucasfilm's recent actions are petty and insulting to the average fan. For a company that thrives on creativity and artistic freedom, their new policy for dealing with fan-created web sites is appalling." Now, I can't comment on Lucasfilm's policy on artistic freedom, but I do think that they made a huge mistake, and ended up alienating some of their biggest fans.

Companies with recognizable brands do the best they can to protect that brand. They work very hard to protect their product's image. But the web poses an interesting challenge to brand managers. How can you support the "bottom up" efforts of individual fans, without losing "top down" control over a valuable, if intangible, asset?



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