Jose Palomino

Yahoo’s Re-Branding Déjà Vu

March 6, 2012

Do you Yahoo?

If the numbers are any indication, then you probably don’t – you’ve probably taken your search to Google, your social interaction to Facebook, and your entertainment to YouTube. Over the last few years, Yahoo! has been floundering to find its identity, to say the least.

Enter new CEO Scott Thompson (former executive of PayPal) to save the day. His previous experiences make him an odd choice for a company turnaround: he’s been a product manager instead of a media executive, he helped a small-but-healthy business grow – but has no experience turning around a flagging business, and he unabashedly confessed to knowing barely anything about advertising. And yet he is the chosen one to relaunch the suffering search engine company – he is the one responsible for branding Yahoo! with a new identity.

And what will that identity be, exactly?

It’s hard to say, but Yahoo! seems to be focusing its efforts on online entertainment. The close of 2011 brought announcements of partnerships with Bill Maher and Funny or Die comedic videos, as well as launching original video content. A few days ago, Yahoo! also reported their sponsorship of the Sundance Festival – mainly by partnering with the festival to air 12 short films on their website.

So, judging from the recent press releases, I gather Yahoo is re-branding itself as… an online media giant? …a social-networking culture hub? …generally cool and relevant? Or… what? To be honest, I can’t really make heads or tails of their re-branding scheme, and I think that’s a problem. There’s no clear indication of the direction the company is heading in, and I’m fairly certain the audience they’re attempting to reach out to (the young, hip, “YouTube generation”, I presume?) won’t be taking this [vaguely positioned] bait.

And not to beat a dead horse, but doesn’t this seem all-too-familiar? –A little too much like Yahoo! re-branding déjà vu?

Need I remind everyone of former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz – who, with her ascent to executive power, brought a massive re-branding campaign to Yahoo in 2009? The “Y!ou” campaign sought to humanize the company – playing off of the rise of me-centric internet browsing (made popular, if not invented, by Facebook). That campaign made much more sense than the current one: it was streamlined, seemed relevant, and was bound to work.

Except it didn’t.

So why does Yahoo! think their current re-branding efforts will work? What’s the difference?

If they’re hoping for a new audience from the Sundance folks, they’re probably out of luck. YouTube partnered with Sundance only two years ago, allowing viewers to watch full-length Sundance films on streaming during the festival events. The films chosen were obscure, the audience drawn in was smaller than anticipated, and YouTube has chosen not to partner again with Sundance in this way. If YouTube – an internet giant with branding built on online videos – couldn’t snag the hipster Sundance audience, how will Yahoo! attempt this feat? Unless Yahoo! has some blockbuster short films up their sleeve (does such a thing exist?), it seems doubtful that the Sundance partnership will do much, if anything, to turn the company around.

Yahoo! keeps missing the mark on re-branding because they are failing to capitalize on their current strengths. The fact is that they still get 700 million visitors each month as an online leader in news and sports. They would do better making efforts to become innovators in the world of online news – to re-brand themselves as a “trusted online news source.” They should attempt to cater to their current audience – perhaps offering specialized sports programming, such as the UFC (which, with 50% of their audience between the ages of 21 and 34, is just the type of demographic Yahoo! seems to be coveting[i]).

Instead of focusing on completely changing their identity, Yahoo! should stick to what they’re already doing that’s working – and bump it up a notch. Attempting to copy Facebook and YouTube (or trying to make a new hybrid) is not smart re-branding. The mistake here is that their overhaul will leave people scratching their heads, wondering why exactly they should even consider using Yahoo! in the first place.

Listen, I’m interested to see how this all plays out. Maybe there will be a sudden resurgence of loyalty for Yahoo!… but it doesn’t seem likely. Unless and until we see a miraculous turnaround for the company, there a few re-branding lessons we can take away from this whole situation:

  • Innovate – Don’t Copy: Facebook and YouTube became internet giants because they offered something new to the internet consumer. The reality is that, for the time being, they are ahead of the game. Unless your company can offer something truly new to these audiences, don’t attempt to become a copycat. Instead, find a new way to deliver what your company has to offer. Simplify it, humanize it, and streamline it.
  • Know and Capitalize on Your Strengths: Yahoo! has an audience through its news and sports offerings, and yet they seem to be ignoring this strength staring them in the face. The only justification (if you can call it that) for this is that they must not realize their strength in this area. Don’t follow suit. Figure out who your best and real audience is, what they want, and then give it to them – pronto!
  • Make Re-branding Clear and Focused: Let’s say you’ve come to the conclusion that you must completely overhaul your company’s branding. Fine, but make it clear. Don’t be vague, and don’t be irrelevant. Re-market your brand in such a way that anyone who sees your company’s logo and messaging will know exactly why they need you.

What do you think of Yahoo’s recent re-branding strategy?

How would you re-brand the company?

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