Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Why We Brand

Added on by Tom Webster.

I'm not the only one who has said this, but the GoDaddy ad during the 2013 Super Bowl was *appallingly* bad. Just so you know exactly what I am talking about, here it is--but please, don't watch it if you don't need to.

There have been many armchair quarterbacks chiming in on the depths of the…uhhh…depths of this spot. Many of those reactions have been visceral and emotional, and they are not wrong--GoDaddy's branding over the past few years has been nothing short of vomit-inducing. I don't have anything to add to those reactions, and yes: GoDaddy's branding makes me queasy.

I'll just add this, more rational reaction: GoDaddy's continuing journey down this particular path is atrociously poor branding, if you buy into the definition of branding to which I ascribe. The smartest take on branding I know of comes from my friend, the inestimably smart Tom Barnes, who once told me this: "The definition of a branding exercise is any exercise that reduces the risk of purchase."

I love that definition, and it's now fully ingrained into my thinking process. In fact, I can think of no situation where that is not, at the root of the problem, the root of the problem.

So here's a rational take on the spectacular failings of both this spot, and GoDaddy's entire branding campaign over the years, which seems to be centered on sex: Positioning yourself as the "sexy" domain registrar does not reduce or otherwise mitigate the risk of purchase. Conflating your brand with sex works with beer. Men who drink beer don't want to be seen drinking a lame beer. A beer that associates itself with scantily-clad women is reducing the risk that men might feel drinking that beer by making that association in a logical way: I am at a bar, I want to be seen as attractive, so I will drink a beer that seems to attract attractive people at bars, so I don't risk looking like a loser.

There is no scenario in which that makes sense for a hosting company. My hosting company is not something that is part of my "story" as a person. I've never been asked what hosting company I use at a bar. I've never been asked by someone on a date what hosting company I use. Associating sex with hosting is contextually irrelevant, and does not reduce the risk of purchase. I've never made a purchasing decision about hosting based upon what that decision says about me as a person to others.

We buy things, consume media, and associate ourselves with brands based upon what those brands signify, and that is how, to some extent, we tell our own stories. I've never seen anyone trumpet a hosting company for any other reason than uptime, value, service, performance or features. I think there are ways to make those features "sexy" in a contextually relevant way. What GoDaddy has done, year after year, is position itself merely as the "sexy" hosting company. And that says diddly about the risks associated with purchasing hosting in any meaningful way.

Finally, there's a very simple way for brands to evaluate whether or not approaches like this will work for them. All you need to do is study your customers. If what your customers say and do makes the case that how their purchase might be perceived by others is an important attribute in their purchase decision (and yes, the skilled market researcher can indeed uncover this data) then by all means, smooch away. Get yourself some porn stars. Push the boundaries. This narrative works for some brands because people want to tell their own stories by associating themselves with those brands.

But I really doubt that competent market research in the hosting category would reveal "sexy" as even remotely in the top ten attributes worth owning. Who owns cheap? Who owns reliable? Who owns customer service? Who owns performance? I can't personally answer any of those questions for hosting. If you can't answer all four of those questions, then the branding stories that need to be told first are clear.