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No more Jeeves: is online branding too serious?

I’m quite fond of the Ask Jeeves butler, but apparently CEO of parent company IAC, Larry Diller, has no such soft spot for him and says the guy’s gotta go. It wasn’t enough they sent him on a diet and to a tanning salon, apparently Jeeves is about to be retired.
The SearchViews article reporting this decision quotes branding expert Rob Frankel reasoning, “the butler is a vestige of the “playful, early days of the Internet””. Unh.. wha? You mean the net isn’t still wacky? Say it isn’t so… What are Google and Yahoo! if they do not appeal to the exploratory, who-knows-what-may-happen, original wacky nature of the net?
I took the opportunity to ask Rob’s opinion on this question.

June: Do you think brands need to be so serious online?
Rob: I guess it depends by how you define “serious.” If you mean they all have to wear pin striped suites with neck ties, the answer is definitely “no.” In fact, I can make the argument that one of branding’s most powerful benefits is its ability to ingratiate people.
The truth is that people prefer to do business with people and brands they enjoy. Although this doesn’t play well with corporate executives who live and die by spreadsheets that don’t measure these kinds of things, this element alone helped propel brands like Southwest airlines become preferred.
June: How does the Travelocity gnome fit in?
Rob: It doesn’t. The gnome is another product of an ad agency with no marketing or branding sense. It’s a gimmick, which unfortunately, serves no purpose. Since there’s no articulated brand strategy, Travelocity is stuck in the “what can we do to get attention” mode, trading the chance to say something meaningful for simple, ineffective awareness. The proof is that nobody can tell you why Travelocity is “the only solution to their problem.”
June: Or Yahooooo-oo ads?
Rob: Memorable. Fun. Doesn’t say why I should use Yahoo, though.
Another pure awareness play. Too bad that Google’s eating their lunch, but now you know why. If Yahoo had spent more time creating and communicating an effective brand strategy, they wouldn’t have been as easy a mark for Google. Just watch Yahoo “transition” yet again, away from a dependency on search to more media…they have to, because there’s no reason end users have for staying with Yahoo.

And on that provocative note just in time for the weekend, share your best/favourite wacky big brands online through the comments link. And meantime, here’s a little despair from me.