Build the brand, success will follow
By Janet Kornblum
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM
NEW YORK--Robert Pittman is way too charming to come out and say it aloud to a room packed with online heavies. But if his speech at a recent online conference had a working title, it probably would have been, "it's the brand, stupid."
Some were surprised by his message. Pittman was telling the industry's biggest players in that Southern drawl of his that AOL's key to success isn't going to be content. It's going to be its brand.
It's the same thing he's been saying all these years as a founder of MTV, as chief executive officer of Century 21, as chairman and CEO of Six Flags Entertainment, and at just about every other job he's packed into his 28-year career. (Pittman says he took his first job at the tender age of 15.)
All these years, though, America Online has been preaching content. After all, the company has said, content is what separates its service from most of the competition. AOL has lots of it, tons of it. Come to AOL and you can read the New York Times, check out the latest computer programs, or do a research paper using its online encyclopedia and gateway to the Internet. That's been the promise of AOL and its main selling point.
So what was Pittman, the man of many careers, getting at? That only when a product--and that can be anything from a cable channel and a real estate company to an amusement park--has a universally recognizable brand name, can it begin to think about conquering the world. It worked at MTV, but will it work at AOL?
With Pittman at the head of its online service, that's what the company is thinking hard about these days.
To be clear, Pittman wasn't saying, as some thought, that content doesn't count. He was saying that people don't come to AOL because it has the best content. They go there because it has a lot of it. And how do they know that? Because they know about the brand. AOL, in other words, is aiming to be the superstore of the Internet, where the products don't have to be perfect or even the best. They just have to be there en masse for the masses to enjoy.
Pittman, sitting in one of AOL's many worldwide offices in New York one recent winter day, explained that his goal is to build AOL into the biggest and best online brand. He said his job is a lot easier than, say, at MTV, because he isn't starting from scratch. AOL already has incredible brand recognition. Sure, it's the company that hard-core Netizens love to hate. But ask any non-Netizen what an online service is and the answer is likely to be "AOL." All Pittman has to do is leverage that brand and use it wisely, and success will follow. That's the plan, anyhow.
Some say that's naive, that the online business is different than any other, but Pittman will argue that people are the same wherever they go. They'll be loyal to an online company for the same reason they're loyal to a restaurant or an amusement park.
But what about all of AOL's problems? At the time of the interview, AOL was still under enormous pressure from its customers for having failed miserably to predict what kind of impact going to flat-rate pricing would have on the service. Within hours of going to the new pricing, members hogged the access lines so much so that millions more were left out, blocked from entering the service by constant, frustrating busy signals. They yelled, they sent email, and they wrote letters. Then they sued.
When things got really ugly, Pittman, who had joined the company the same day it announced that it would be moving to flat-rate pricing, stepped up, calling members of the press himself, and acted as the calm spokesman in the eye of the storm. In fact, in a masterful move of spin doctoring, he turned the whole thing around into something positive.
It was the company line, but coming out of Pittman it sounded sincere. Members, he said, "held our feet to the fire, but you know what? That's like a family."
If people didn't like AOL, they'd simply leave and go somewhere else, he said. But many stayed. No matter how much criticism is thrown at the often insular and sometimes defensive company, it can always point to the simple mathematics of the situation. Customers come and go all the time, but the sum total keeps increasing. Right now, AOL has 8 million customers worldwide. That's a lot more than anyone else out there.
That's the prize and you can be sure Pittman's got his eye on it all the time, trying to make that number grow until AOL reaches some lofty goal. While critics question whether Pittman has the right stuff to run an online company, he'll stay focused and continue to do what he knows how to do best: build brands. Then when he's judged it a success, he'll be onto the next venture.
NEWS.COM chatted with Pittman at America Online's New York offices during the Jupiter Communications Consumer Online Services conference in March.
NEWS.COM: Let me just start with an easy question. What brought you to AOL after leading businesses such as real estate company Century 21, the Six Flags theme parks, and cable television brands like MTV and VH1? Why did you join the online world and what do you hope to achieve?
Pittman: I was on the [AOL] board and [CEO] Steve [Case] started talking to me about joining management. I was very taken with the point at which [the company] was at. It was a business that was breaking wide open. Clearly, there was going to be mass market and mass culture, and AOL was the only brand in the consumer space.
So this time you don't feel like you have to start from scratch?
AOL's brand is built. I'll only take jobs where the brand is already built and there's plenty of room for growth ahead. I went through building brands with MTV and Nickelodeon. I never want to build another brand as long as I live. It takes about a billion dollars of marketing and about five to ten years. I swore to God I'd never build another brand as long as I live. It's the most miserable, time-consuming, awful, nerve-wracking experience that you could possibly imagine because you never know until the end of the day whether you will succeed.
Once you already have a brand, it's something people can't take away from you. So then you can begin to use it and to build your product bigger and bigger.
AOL has infrastructure in place. We've got great technology people. They understand making the experience easier for our members, whether it's buddy lists or searching profiles or getting stuff to the consumer faster. It all plays into the real mass market.
NEXT: Critical mass