Sometimes the best way to grow your audience is to realize they hate you -- and show through your branding that you’re exactly the opposite of who they think you are. For an illustrative lesson in how to turn hate into love through branding, let's go back into the "Wayback Machine" to 2003 to hear the tale of what AOL had to do to land a teen audience.
Back then, Jon Miller was CEO of AOL. Miller -- who would go on to become News Corp.'s chief digital officer -- enlisted the assistance of Malcolm Bird to launch digital programming for kids and teens at AOL.
“I told Miller and Jim Bankoff [Bird's boss at AOL who would go on to found VOX] we could be up and running with both a kids’ platform and a teens’ platform within a year,” says Bird, founder and president of the kids social video network Viddiverse.com.
“The kids’ branding was going to be easy. I said, 'Let's just call it KOL [Kids On Line].' But I knew teens were going to be a whole lot tougher.”
Bird understood that most of AOL's audience was “35-plus” and that teens generally thought AOL was anything but cool. Still, he wasn't sure exactly how “uncool” they thought it was, until he ran two days of focus groups with teens in San Francisco.
“They had no idea AOL was behind the focus groups,” says Bird. “We put the kids in groups of three and put these giant white boards in the room. We had them place all sorts of random items on the board that would define their ultimate Web experience. Then we had them give the site they designed a name. Two of the groups, with no connection with each other, came up with the same name: FuckAOL.com.”
Understandably, Bird was devastated at how much his target audience had a hate on AOL. “I got on the plane back to AOL headquarters in Arlington beyond depressed,” says Bird.
Fortunately that harsh reality check was the mother of an inventive brand. “I knew we had to be the anti-AOL,” says Bird. “Everything back then about AOL was the color blue. I thought, let's call it 'RED.' Red is hot. Blue is cold and icy. Right there on the plane on my laptop, I photoshopped the logo of RED in red, using the AOL triangle and typeface. I got off the plane, called Miller and the other powers-that-be, and they gave it the green light.”
By the time Bird exited AOL in 2007 in the wake of Miller's departure, RED was making money as the No. 1 digital network for teens in the U.S. Bird says during his run Bono tried to buy RED's URL BeRed.com for his Red charity organization. The Bono-led organization even stole (or paid homage to, if you prefer) a marketing scheme that Bird had cooked up to market AOL's RED, where celebrities would wear items like limited-edition RED Nikes. “I never got the support to make it work,” says Bird. “But a guy working for us quit and went to work for Bono. All of sudden there's all these celebrities sporting clothes and electronics in red to support the cause.
“Oh, well. We had a great run -- and it would never have succeeded if we hadn't found out and accepted how deeply AOL was hated by our target audience.”