AOL's Troubling Brand Evolution Efforts
May 19, 2008 ‐ 2 comments


"13 Year-Old Boy Hires Hookers to Play XBox at a Motel."

This is a recent headline from, a site aimed at that discerning cohort of twentysomething males whose interests span the gamut of testosterone-laced content, from the violent to the prurient. Oh yes – and sports too.

The headline and the site dissolve nicely into that morass fecund with Maxim, FHM, and Zoo look-alikes, but for one detail. Check the navigation above the Asylum home page banner and you see that the site is clearly a property of AOL. That’s right: your grandmother’s dial-up service isn’t just for retirees anymore. This is one of several attempts AOL is making to create key brands aimed at audiences with whom the core AOL brand doesn’t resonate.

Is publicly tying a site like Asylum to AOL going to raise AOL’s hip quotient? Or is it more likely to render Asylum an also-ran and raise the ire of the faithful AOL subscribers who are already angry that their AOL Version 38.1 installation diskettes haven’t arrived yet?

From a brand equity perspective, AOL is the equivalent of the BCG Growth-Share Matrix’s “Dog”. It’s time for a new brand. Sure, there’s value in the AOL name among commercial audiences, but this is an organization that can afford to spend the resources on b2b stakeholders to prepare them for and guide them through a complete re-branding. AOL cannot, however, afford to be irrelevant to consumers.

Brand architecture is tricky business. Corporate parents want their equity enhanced by sub-brands, but as the Italian saying goes, “You can’t have the wife drunk and the bottle full.” Toyota is all about practicality and value. That’s why it has made the Scion brand totally independent. The Toyota brand doesn’t get to become edgy and hip, but it doesn’t confuse its loyal customers. And Scion gets to control its own destiny.

Good branding requires making difficult choices. You can’t just know your limits – you have to embrace them. Only very few brands get to be all things to all people. AOL is not one of them.

Tell your friends:
Peter Allen
May 29, 2008 1:03 pm
Great assessment of the AOL brand. AOL is to Web 2.0 as Fabio is to cultural relevance. This is a terrific open forum / blog. Great stuff so far. I look forward to checking in frequently.
Melissa Monteith
May 23, 2008 2:41 pm
I find the articles on the Brand Culture web site to be intelligent and well written. Hopefully, someone at AOL will see your wisdom and sign you up. Looking forward to future mind-expanding information.

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