AOL, one of the earliest internet service providers, is as well-known for its history as it is for its current operations. AOL owns Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and Engadget, and has acquired all of Microsoft’s ad business, rendering it a serious force in the digital media business. Despite this, it still can’t shake off an old-school, “Web 1.0” image.
But now its marketing executives are trying to bring it up to speed with similar companies: along with other initiatives aimed at revitalizing its image, a name change is being considered. This is a contentious issue, one that would have the brand cutting ties with the 1990’s once and for all. Though no decision has been made, one thing is clear: the AOL of the future will bear little resemblance to the one many users remember — if it’s even still called AOL!
This is not the first time the company has launched a campaign to make itself more modern. In 2009, they began spelling the company name Aol, releasing a new series of logos featuring the newly-stylized name over various bright and colorful images. This was right after they’d broken ties with Time Warner, their once-feted merger having proven disastrous. With user numbers falling rapidly (they peaked at 27 million; by 2009, it was down to 6 million), they decided to appeal to a younger crowd.
The 2009 rebranding effort didn’t work: AOL is, by and large, still considered to be out of date. What’s worse, many individuals (and some corporate ventures) aren’t aware it’s a veritable multimedia empire — far from the era in which it seemingly blanketed the entire country in CD-installable versions of their web browser. But company officials are torn about whether it should let go of “AOL” completely. Chief marketing officer Allie Kline said: “If you ask me today, I could say, ‘I feel very strongly about the AOL brand.’… But if we met tomorrow, I could be like, ‘Yes! We need a new name!.’ “ Clearly, this isn’t a decision they’re taking lightly.
AOL may be more ready than ever for such a dramatic shift. In May 2015, they were bought by Verizon in a $4.4 billion acquisition, a deal Verizon stated was appealing in part due to AOL’s advertising model. It was noted that other properties owned by AOL, including TechCrunch and Engadget, may come under new management.
Verizon may be the driving force behind some of what’s to come for AOL. In a conversation with Business Insider, branding expert Mark Ritson said: “this is a move that should be made by Verizon executives, not vested AOL people.” He indicated there should be a major brand overhaul, but it should also restructure its divisions under Verizon’s oversight. He’s evidently in favor of a new name, saying, “it’s time to take out the knife and cut back brands to release growth and profit.”
For those who only remember AOL as a predecessor to more modern and user-friendly web experiences, this may be the best choice. And for those who don’t remember AOL at all, a new name certainly won’t hurt. In any case, a decision is on the horizon: “I actually don’t think there’s a bad choice,” said Allie Kline, “but we have to make the choice.” Indeed, the future of AOL and all of its properties may rely on it.