America’s big brands have a lot on their plates right now. A challenging year has just given way to the post-Thanksgiving sales rush, and the focus is squarely on rounding out the year with solid numbers as the holiday season begins. Relatively few brands are aware that a landmark change to the Internet landscape is about to occur.
If they are aware of it, what they have read so far is likely to give the impression that this big change is under a cloud and likely to be stalled or stopped by lobbyists in Washington. So -- nothing for brands to worry about, then?
The inconvenient truth is that the change is not going away -- it is almost upon us.
I’m talking about the plans to expand the Internet domain landscape with many new names, including brand-name URLs or “dot brands.” It has been debated around the world for six years, and there is a lot of information about the program and its implications all over the Web, so I won’t go into that here.
But the brief window to apply begins in January 2012, and right now the U.S. is playing catch up.
As with any big change, we’re seeing a great deal of FUD -- but curiously, it is concentrated in the U.S. While our digital brand services division is headquartered in California, we work with thousands of organizations around the world. As we meet and speak with upwards of 350 marketing, IT and legal teams assessing the dot brand opportunity, we see U.S.-based companies --which span retail to banking -- particularly lagging in the discussion.
In fact, it appears that more than three-quarters of companies that plan to apply for a dot brand are based in Europe or Asia.
Applying for one of the new Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) is not for everyone. Not all will want one, nor will every organization qualify. The cost to apply is significant -- the applicant must demonstrate their financial, technical and organizational capability to operate a top-level domain.
Some brands like HP or P&G will not be able to secure obvious names because ICANN requires at least three letters and no symbols. But there are also potential gains for those that can afford it, submit a solid application, and ultimately leverage the potential search, branding, trust, and navigation benefits offered by their new online real estate.
Why the disconnect in the U.S.? Verisign forecasts upwards of 1,500 gTLD applications before the April 12th deadline, and ICANN is showing no sign of delaying the application window. The program is a reality.
It’s true that few companies beyond Canon and Hitachi (both Japanese) are willing to go on record about their plans. However, as obtaining a new gTLD is expected to be a competitive process -- and for many, revealing your plans is throwing away competitive advantage -- don’t mistake silence for inactivity.
It seems likely that we will discover in May 2012 (once ICANN reveals the applicants for new TLDs) that Internet-savvy brands in Asia and Europe were busy applying for new Internet real estate as U.S. companies were asleep at the wheel -- because the topic was never afforded a thoughtful discussion.
I would counsel big brands to look beyond the hyperbole of both the new gTLD detractors and supporters and take a rational approach to evaluating the impending changes. There are risks and opportunities surounding these new dot brand domains as with any strategic decision -- but brands need to get smart, and fast.