Dear Tim: Here's a Tour of the It-Takes-a-Licking-but-Keeps-on-Ticking AOL Brand
What’s next for AOL?
Reviving the “You’ve Got Mail!” motto?
Or: “The Future. Now Available.”–set to music from “The Jetsons”?
What about: “So easy to use, no wonder it’s #1!”
Or maybe, it should just use a nice loooooooong busy signal as its calling card again?
Well, it could happen, now that new CEO Tim Armstrong has fallen prey to the siren call of the AOL moniker, as have many–way too many–before him.
After years of seeing the company wander in the anything-but-the-AOL wilderness, Armstrong has decided to try to welcome the prodigal brand back home, even as he prepares to spin it off in November from Time Warner (TWX), trading on the New York Stock Exchange once again under the AOL stock ticker.
Thus, he has renamed the Platform A advertising unit AOL Advertising; changed its unfortunately named People Networks–which is made up of the communications and community properties–to AOL Communications; and done the same for its MediaGlow, which is now under AOL Media.
While BoomTown admires Armstrong’s moxie, there is some dicey past history related to the AOL brand–which I lovingly call the “Christine” of the Internet industry–that he might want to be aware of:
* The start-up from which AOL first sprung was named Control Video Corp., which was founded to create a device that would allow users of the Atari 2600 videogame machine to download games over telephone lines.
* After it tanked, CVC was reborn in 1985 as Quantum Computer Services, which had offerings with names like Q-Link for Commodore computers and AppleLink for Apple (AAPL) Macintosh computers.
* In October 1989, the-AOL CEO, Steve Case, announced a company contest: What should Quantum rename its main online service?
The suggestions that came in—Crossroads, Explore and Infinity—sounded like drug treatment programs or new car brands.
Dismissing them all, Case offered a bland creation of his own: America Online, with a second option of Online America.
Other staffers understandably derided it as hokey, but Case essentially stuffed the ballot box and voted his suggestion the winner anyway.
Later, he would change it to just its initials, AOL.
* Case also hit on the idea of attaching voice files to the software with cheery little sound bites that would make the service feel homey.
The team settled on four phrases: “Welcome,” “You’ve got mail,” “File’s done,” and “Goodbye.”
A customer service representative named Karen Edwards had mentioned that her husband, Elwood, was a professional broadcaster, so for testing purposes, Case asked if Elwood might read those four phrases into a cassette tape.
The test tape was put into use, and Elwood Edwards, quite by chance, ended up having one of the most listened-to voices on the planet.
* In July 1993, AOL marketing chief Jan Brandt supersized the AOL brand by asking Case for permission to spend $250,000 on a direct-mail campaign.
She recalls him telling her it wouldn’t work. He told me in an interview he did no such thing.
Whatever the case, she got permission, and thus began the very low-tech marketing blitz of hundreds of millions of disks that would make AOL a household name—and annoyance.
There were even AOL disks flash-frozen in Omaha Steaks.
* In a 1993 meeting between Case and then-Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Bill Gates, annoyed by the innovative start-up, Gates famously told Case, “I can buy 20 percent of you or I can buy all of you. Or I can go into business myself and bury you.”
None of those ever came to pass, which is a reason to cheer the AOL brand. But–given Microsoft’s weak record in the online business–this is also not saying much.
* AOL’s brand has gone through a lot of name-calling, some of it quite deserved. Here are some: “The Online K-mart,” “America On Hold,” “The Giant Sucking Sound.”
But this one from its earliest days is my favorite: “The Cockroach of Cyberspace.”
* AOL did a lot of television commercials to hype the service, some of which you can see below. In one especially weird one, AOL hired Adam West of the goofy “Batman” television series.
* When AOL and Time Warner announced their merger on January 10, 2000, and renamed the company AOL Time Warner, AOL owned 55 percent and the combined market valuation was thought to be in the hundreds of billions.
Today, with Google (GOOG) selling back its five percent stake in AOL, AOL’s value has plummeted to about $6 billion. Time Warner is currently worth just over $33 billion.
* When Jon Miller–now digital head at News Corp. (NWS) took over at AOL in mid-2002, after said merger failed miserably and the brand was taken off the corporate name, he spent some time visiting the company’s other divisions, and related an anecdote to me that he’d told them, to try to help move the relationships forward.
“Have you ever had your car towed in New York?” he said he’d ask executives in other divisions. “When your car gets towed, there’s a sign at the place where you go to pick it up that says, ‘The person behind this window did not tow your car. If you cooperate with them, you will get your car back quicker.’”
Tim, Time Warner is still waiting for Christine to be returned, so good luck with that rebranding!
And, while we await the turnaround, here is a little video I did for Tim about my (lack of) AOL branding expertise with my assistant Ed, and also some of the better AOL television commercials: