Top AOL Execs on Why Name Recognition Isn’t Always a Good Thing

Remember these? (Image: Techgage)
Remember these? (Image: Techgage)

When you see an email address that includes “,” what do you think? Chances are, the terms that come to mind are “not a Web native,” or “not savvy,” or even, sadly, “old.”

That’s not good for anyone, including AOL.

This morning at a breakfast Q&A in New York produced by Catherine Gay Communications, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong addressed the issue of his company’s brand recognition. (Susan Lyne, CEO of AOL's Brand Group, was also on the panel.)

"When people see an AOL email address, they think of someone who looks like me," said Harvard lecturer and moderator Alex Jones, gesturing towards his grey hair.

"Someone smart, with money?" quipped Armstrong.

Jokes aside, Lyne and Armstrong both admitted AOL had a problem with brand identity: "The core AOL brand is not there," said Lyne. "People think of it as their parents' email addresses, and yet, in addition to our strong portfolio of media brands [HuffPo, TechCrunch, Engadget], there are more than 200 million people who come through our homepage monthly."

Armstrong shot down the idea that AOL should change its name, saying "It's incredibly expensive to implant a chip in someone's head so they know the name of your company. Every country I've been to knows AOL, and that's a powerful thing." He also cited Priceline and eBay as two tech giants that recovered after their heyday waned.

For communications professionals, it's an interesting case: How do you rebrand a globally-recognized company without starting from scratch (or alienating brand loyalists, as JCPenney did)? With new additions to the AOL portfolio, like Patch, and the unveiling of 15 new web shows earlier this year, it will be interesting to see how the public's view of the digital behemoth evolves.

Armstrong feels good about it, though: "You're going to re-love AOL."

Follow Lucia Davis: @LKCDavis