AOL is offering up a tantalizing taste of its post-Time Warner business strategy: a new brand identity, which it plans to formally introduce when it lists on the NYSE on December 10.Gone will be that triangle whooshing thingee, replaced instead with a sans serif spelling of AOL followed with a period. The text will appear on a variety of images, from a goldfish to a cloud or scribble. My guess is that the background will change based on use, season, and perhaps branding whim, and that it'll be plastered all over big billboards at the market session opener on the 10th.
It reeks of a stereotypical branding exercise.
Quick, what does AOL do? It doesn't count if you remember what it used to do back in the days of portals and dial-up. It's not really a technology company (it never really was), but rather a provider of services; now I believe it's going to claim to be a content publisher and, if it's smart, figure out a way to connect its wallowing email and IM functions to accessing the stuff it propagates. "Content meets community" might be a cool angle for them to pursue. Maybe some tech analysts will fall for it.
But AOL has gigantic business challenges ahead of itself, since nobody is paying for content anymore (Rupert Murdoch's latest swipes at Google aside), and everybody has a widget or way to connect people in conversation. To say that the jury is still out on AOL's future is a gross understatement. Remember that Time Warner is spinning it off at a value about $.10 on each dollar of its original purchase price, or something like that. Betting on AOL's future is about as reliable as playing roulette.
This is why I think the standard branding nonsense approach doesn't help things much.
It's a "chicken or egg" thing for me: the new look demands substantiation of why something is different, other than the shapes and colors on a page or screen, at exactly the moment when nothing is different (at least not yet). Listing stock is a symbolic event that's the beginning of change, if anything; a new logo is a symbol of, well, a new logo.
There's nothing about AOL's old branding that would keep it from operationalizing and delivering on its new strategy. The rare companies, such as Xerox, that have been successful at reinventing themselves both 1) execute on the new plan and prove success, and 2) only then waste money on the glorious branding to re-label everything.
Most tech companies, especially start-ups, have this process bass-ackwards, and get sold a bill of goods from branding consultants that convincingly argues the function follows form. The smokestacks of the world figured out otherwise about a century ago.
Promoting a new brand is like spending on credit before the ball lands on your roulette number.