Verizon-owned AOL has an image problem.
The issue, according to chief marketing officer Allie Kline, is that there's a disconnect between the parent company and all the brands that are part of it.
For example, when she talks to people about AOL, they often mention how they use it as their mail service, while having absolutely no idea that it also owns The Huffington Post.
For Kline, one of AOL's biggest priorities for the new year is figuring out its brand and investing in it, even if that means saying goodbye to the name "AOL" in favor of launching something completely new.
"I actually don't think there's a bad choice, but we have to make the choice," she tells Business Insider. "Are we going to keep the AOL brand or are we going to bring a new brand to market?"
It's similar to how Google blew itself up last year to create a parent company "Alphabet" with a bunch of different subsidiaries within it. AOL already has the different companies within it, it just needs to figure out the identity of the parent.
"If you ask me today, I could say, 'I feel very strongly about the AOL brand. It has a lot of legacy and meaning, and we shouldn’t move away from it!'" Kline says. "But if we met tomorrow, I could be like, ‘Yes! We need a new name!’ It’s a very hard needle to thread for us."
Kline says that internal branding research has appeared pretty split down the middle. Because AOL was one of the first brands of the internet, some consumers love it. But, for that same reason, it also doesn't jibe with people who love HuffPo today, for example.
"The Aol name has many associations that people just can’t get past," says Sam Wilson, global principal at consultancy Wolff Olins, which led the company's rebrand in 2009. "The worst merger in history, charging old ladies for dial up, and 'You've got mail.'"
Wilson believes that even though the company has built up its credibility with advertisers on its business-to-business side, it needs to kill the "AOL" name for its ad products.
"They could give the brand that talks to Wall Street and big ad buyers a new name — that would sit proudly next to the Googles, Facebooks and other big ad players of the world – and that feels like the 21st century content and media powerhouse they aspire to be," Wilson tells Business Insider via email.
Mark Ritson, a leading brand expert and marketing consultant, tells Business Insider that he also thinks the messy corporate brand definitely needs a clean up. AOL is tricky, he says, because it has very strong brand awareness, but that its image "has an unpalatable mix of being seen to be out of date and a business failure."
"Now that it is part of Verizon, there should be a major restructuring of the AOL divisions and a very concerted brand cull," he says via email. "But this is a move that should be made by Verizon executives, not vested AOL people. It's time to take out the knife and cut back brands to release growth and profit."
Whether the legacy name remains or not, the company certainly plans to put time and resources into its identity this year.
"Is AOL the right brand? If it is, let’s invest in it," Kline says. "And if it isn’t, let’s figure out what is. But either way, not investing in the brand is not an option."
Besides trying to figure out what to call itself, Kline says that the company is focused on mobile, video, and global growth.
"You should expect us to have an aggressive year," she adds.
Maybe with a different name?
"Who knows? 'Expect the unexpected' is the motto," she laughs. "Yeah. Maybe!"
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