Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Aol. WTF?

“Change is good,” it’s been said. That thinking's seen us through 233 years of American dynamism, from a Declaration of Independence to an election, last November, that made that Declaration truly independent of the era in which it was written.

AOL understands that basic idea. Oops, my bad. That’s Aol. to you, effective on Thursday. That’s the day when AOL aka America Online officially transforms itself for the new century. That’s the day the company’s common stock begins trading on the New York Stock Exchange. That’s six days after AOL laid off 2,500 employees, the last headcount guillotine action before today’s spin-off from Time Warner (two weeks before Christmas).

Change is, uh, good.

The company showcased the new mark in a preview on Sunday, along with six accompanying, seemingly random images. The company’s press release spelled it out: "New Aol Brand Expresses Commitment to Stimulating Content, Openness and Inclusion."

“The new AOL brand identity is a simple, confident logotype, revealed by ever-changing images. It’s one consistent logo with countless ways to reveal,” reads the statement on the corporate Web site.

“Our new identity is uniquely dynamic,” Aol. Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong said in the press statement. “We have a clear strategy that we are passionate about and we plan on standing behind the … brand as we take the company into the next decade.”

The company joined forces with Wolff Olins, a brand and innovation consultancy based in London, New York and Dubai.

Last month, Alice Cho, Print magazine’s art director, told The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford:

“To be honest, I don't get it. I'm confused by the title case and I don't feel that the mixture of upper and lower case better communicates the ‘Commitment to Stimulating Content, Openness and Inclusion.’ I wonder if the image accompanying the Aol. mark will be constantly changing, depending on the context. Or will these 6 images be applied everywhere? I'm curious to see this applied across the board and see how the changing imagery works in various applications.”

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To these consumerist eyes, though, and in some perverse counter-intuitive way, the Aol. logo is exactly what Cho suggests it might be. The Aol. logotype will be superimposed on a galaxy of images, not just these six.

And that’s probably the point: against the canvas of exotic imagery, the logotype itself becomes almost invisible, the backdrop of the everyday experience — with the ubiquity that Aol. is certainly seeking as a portal, Internet service provider and global Web services company. It’s a “Rashomon” thing: each consumer sees what they want to see; every Aol. user will have their own distinctive take on the Aol. experience.

For some, it’s a move away from a corporate mark that was fully participatory already. Larry Oliver, commenting on the identity change at The Wrap asks: “It still baffles me why AOL went to letters for their name when they had the perfect name for an Internet company. America Online. Can you think of better name than that to describe what your business is?”

A damn good question, and time will tell how the public receives this head-scratching concept. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a company has tried to get the public to accept a brand identity that, at first blush, didn’t make a lick of sense.

From amazon to Nike, from eBay to Apple, from Monster to Google, American commerce is littered with examples of companies whose maverick descriptors didn’t obey the logic of making things easy on the consumer. Everyone in the world recognizes those names, and the products and services behind them, today. Clearly, there’s something to be said for going boldly where no company’s gone before.

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Aol.’s splashy experiment makes use of one of the more subtle principles of brand identity: that, beyond identifying a specific product or service, a brand name first elicits an emotional response, a first-blush reaction that cuts through intellect and goes for the gut. It’s the look & feel of a brand that often makes the difference.

The upper-and-lower-case treatment may be their way of making the brand look more accessible, less IMPOSING and FORMIDABLE than capital letters. The msnbc Web site tried much the same thing in 2007, when it formally lowercased the letters of its brand. One observer of brand trends called it “├╝berfriendly.” Aol. is probably reading from the same page.

Of course, warm and fuzzy brand recognition only goes so far. Despite the pretty pictures, the public has its own elephant’s memory. Millions of Americans still remember what begat that new ticker symbol on the NYSE: the company whose unsolicited mass direct-mail campaign once loosed millions of software discs on the public (and the environment); the company whose customers have experienced numerous connectivity problems; the company on the receiving end of a $1.25 million fine from New York State in 2005 for poor customer service; the company whose merger with Time Warner is generally regarded as the worst in the history of American business.

Brand identity is all about getting people to remember. It’s a bigger challenge when that brand-new brand identity has as much to do with getting people to forget.

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