'Dot brand' registries: dragging their feet


'Dot brand' registries: dragging their feet

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Despite representing around a third of new gTLD applicants, very few brand owners have yet to take the plunge and launch their own registry. TBO finds out why.

As an innovator and market leader, Google is often ahead of the curve. This is why when, in September 2013, it said its branded new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) would be launched quickly, the statement hardly came as a surprise.

“The timeframe to get .brands out seems to be three to five years, but we will not wait three to five years. We will be aggressive. Speed is important,” said the company’s Hal Bailey, who was speaking at an industry event in London.

Almost a year later, however, there is no sign of .google and .youtube is nowhere to be seen.

Along with Google, Microsoft, KPMG and Gucci are just some of the other notable companies to have applied for, but not used, their .brands. Of those that have launched, insurance group AXA is the biggest, although the bland home page at .axa implies a work in progress and any innovation is left to the imagination.

“We’re probably not going to see much innovation at the start; people are going to be cautious and dip their toe in the water,” says Marc Trachtenberg, shareholder at Greenberg Traurig LLP and a fellow of the Brand Registry Group (BRG), which represents .brand registries. He says companies may wait at least two years before launching their .brands.

Why is this?

Many brands are taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, says Elisa Cooper, senior director of product marketing at MarkMonitor, a brand protection company. They are biding their time until one of the “big” internet players makes its move, she says.

Another reason is simply a lack of knowledge. Even within companies that applied for a .brand, people are not necessarily clued up on domain names, let alone the new gTLD programme, particularly if there has been staff turnover in the time since the application was filed.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, says Cooper, there is still a lack of communication between a brand’s intellectual property group, which probably applied for the gTLD, and its internal marketing team, which has to make some hard decisions and possibly make a “massive” investment in the new domain.

“In many cases they do not have a firm plan about what they’re going to do,” she says.

This communication will have to improve if marketing teams are going to get a good sense of what to do with their .brand. To help them decide, they need to ask themselves a number of big questions, beginning with some basics such as ‘what name is the home page going to use?’.

“Should it be ‘home.brand’?”, asks Trachtenberg. “That’s not very sexy. What about ‘index.brand’? That’s not very sexy either. What about ‘www.brand’? This, and other standards issues, is one of the things the BRG is looking at.”

Another question, he says, surrounds how email addresses will work at the new gTLD when a company migrates to it.

“There is no standard for how that will work,” Trachtenberg says. “You don’t want to migrate your employees to something that’s not recognised.

“If you migrate your brand,” he adds, “what do you do about page rank and other search engine optimisation aspects of your existing websites? Your current sites probably have high search engine ranks, so will you still be able to capture that rank?”

Further, he asks: “Who can register names? Re-sellers? Affiliates? What type of control do you put on those entities? That is definitely a challenge.”

One possible answer to the question of control is setting strong internal policies, says Trachtenberg, in order to prevent registrants (whoever they are) from having second-level domains that are identical or similar to another company’s trademarks.

“For the most part, brands will keep tight control of registrations, so their policies should be more about ensuring internal people understand that it would be a problem for the brand to register domain names matching third-party trademarks in their gTLD or consisting of other problematic terms,” Trachtenberg says.

“For example, imagine someone at Nike’s marketing department registering ‘adidas.nike’. Something like that could happen if people unfamiliar with IP can register domain names.”

ICANN’s small print

Although .brands may not enjoy dealing with technical considerations such as controlling registrations, these are part and parcel of running a domain name registry. Before they launch, branded registries have to think about a number of things that might not seem so appealing. 

“From an ICANN contracting perspective, all .brand applicants must have filed a response to ICANN’s contracting information request, as well as an application for ‘specification 13’, which inserts brand-specific changes into their registry agreement with ICANN,” says Brian Winterfeldt, partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

“All .brand applicants should also carefully consider their envisaged use of the gTLD, as well as all relevant policies that will ultimately govern their registry agreement negotiations with ICANN,” he adds.

Negotiating that agreement, Winterfeldt says, is likely to be a challenge many .brands are going to face before launching, as many organisations have strict procurement guidelines and may only sign agreements with commercially reasonable terms that may differ from the standard terms of the ICANN registry agreement.

“On a practical level, operating a registry is a completely new area of business for the vast majority of .brand applicants, one that can have a significant learning curve. It is important that .brands work with counsel and other service providers who have a great deal of specialised ICANN expertise and who can help provide the required training to internal stakeholders and provide continuing support and assistance,” he adds.

As Molly Burke, associate at gTLD advisory company Fairwinds, explains in a blog post, new gTLD registries will be faced with everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.

“At the top of this list, perhaps, is the job of ensuring the registry remains in compliance with ICANN regulations, which as most applicants know are subject to change. There will be monthly reports to file; fees will have to be paid; the registry’s credit worthiness must be kept up to date.

“These duties span a variety of professional disciplines that should be handled by the appropriate departments, or may, in some cases, be outsourced,” she says.

Benefits for brands

Still one of the biggest questions in consumers’ and analysts’ minds, not to mention for the .brands themselves, is what companies are going to do with their new gTLDs. It’s clear that many benefits have been touted, from reducing counterfeiting to rebranding, but the innovation is likely to vary from company to company.

Jen Wolfe of Wolfe Domain, which advises .brand companies, says the three biggest benefits of a .brand are controlling their ‘online experience’, tracking data across the registry, and being more innovative.

“The gTLD gives you endless opportunities to create new and unique marketing campaigns; it makes it easier for marketers to create specific experiences or landing pages for consumers.”

“Who can register names? Re-sellers? Affiliates? What type of control do you put on those entities? That is definitely a challenge.”

For example, she says, TV network HBO might use ‘gameofthrones.hbo’ to direct consumers to the show Game of Thrones.

“If you love Game of Thrones and you type in ‘gameofthrones.hbo’, it’s going to take you to the place where you find everything for that programme. People will remember that and type it directly into the browser. They won’t need to search for it on the home page.”

This is a bold claim: a Google search is many people’s preferred choice for seeking something they want, and anyone looking for Game of Thrones content could quite as easily try ‘hbo.com/gameofthrones’.

But, Wolfe says, as things stands, Game of Thrones enthusiasts don’t necessarily know where that programme can be found on the HBO site, so a ‘gameofthrones.hbo’ domain is clearer.

With a .brand, she says, “the key for a company like HBO is that they now know that if people are typing stuff into .hbo, they have all that data. They don’t have that right now. They don’t necessarily know what people are searching for over the internet relating to their programmes.”

In order to achieve some of these successes, it seems, brands are going to need to invest heavily in getting the gTLD message out there, particularly as consumer knowledge is currently low. Of course, this is tricky for companies where there is a lack of knowledge about domain names or where a dichotomy exists between the IP and marketing groups.

But as you would expect, those in the gTLD industry are convinced that brands can successfully educate the public.

Cooper notes: “We haven’t seen a company come out and drive traffic to a .brand gTLD. Any of these brands clearly have the capability; there will be leaders and they will have the ability to drive adoption. It won’t be that difficult to drive adoption of gTLDs—if you see adverts on the side of a bus, on your search engine, your landing page or television telling you to go to a .brand site, the general public will say, ‘oh, look at that, I want to check it out’. But we haven’t seen that.

“A lot of companies have made some big investments and were betting on this, so we will see something,” she adds.

If it sticks to its word, Google may be one of the first ‘big boys’ to make its move. If we see some bright ideas from the search company, the rest may follow. For now, however, it’s anyone’s guess what the .brand landscape will look like. 

brands; ICANN; gTLDs; KPMG; AXA

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