AOL hires Leo Burnett USA to rebrand it prior to its spin-off

AOL is attempting to reinvent itself once again so it can spin-off from Time Warner and perhaps regain some of its early 80/90’s luster. I remain skeptical, but hopeful. As annoying as the “Get AOL CDs” were - you have to admit, they’re iconic, as is AOL.

Anyone who recalls the early days of online computing (like me) reminisces fondly about the likes of CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online (AOL). Early email users and BBS afficionados probably were introduced to the online world through one of these portals and dial-up services. In the early days, that’s all there was. Eventually, local ISPs started to provide dial-up access, but most still held onto their AOL accounts for email. The community portal approach that AOL pioneered and defined helped to shape expectations and user experiences for years during the early internet days. And of course, its enormous user base (which, even in its slow decline, is still quite large) led to it’s fabled merger with Time Warner. And even though this ill-fated merger occurred years after AOL had jumped the shark, at its peak, AOL was the internet for most.


Even today, I know devotees that just won’t abandon their AOL email addresses, even though its email offerings were long ago surpassed by Google’s gmail or Yahoo’s mail services. I believe these “loyalists” cling to AOL mostly out of familiarity. Let’s face it, even through multiple updates over the years, the interface hasn’t changed significantly, so some find it comforting and reassuring to use AOL. Even though it’s no longer necessary. And if you have a long history with an AOL email address, it tough to abandon it and get everyone you know to start using a new email….so they’re inclined to stay.


I imagine Leo Burnett’s charge will be to attract new customers and to some how recast AOL as being still relevant. It won’t be an easy task. While there’s a lot of brand recognition remaining in AOL, the brand is associated with being antiquated, a dial-up dinosaur from the early internet days. To the new Facebook crowd it offers very little.


So I look forward to seeing how Leo Burnett reinvents AOL. Maybe it’s nostalgia that makes me hopeful to see the once-great online icon survive and recast itself. Though as I mentioned, I’m a bit skeptical, since I don’t think AOL management will be able to admit just how far down they’ve fallen, and hence, they won’t commit to the total overhaul that it will take to recreate and reinvent the AOL brand. Instead, they’ll most likely end up “putting lipstick on a pig.” Time Warner will spin-off AOL, and it’ll continue to wither and die like so many technology giants of the past.


But then again, I’ll be optimistic. Maybe they’ll do what it takes to reshape AOL. It will take a large effort on both Leo Burnett’s part and AOL’s - but maybe they’ll achieve the nearly impossible. Maybe AOL will follow a similar path to IBM, from giant to has-been and then, through adaptation and reinvention, back to giant ñ albeit a slightly smaller giant.

As someone who remembers AOL fondly from my early years, I’ll hope for the best. But I’m also a good test. Until they can convince me there’s some value in subscribing to AOL services or even having an AOL email…they’ll remain lost. Not that I’m the perfect measure, but I’m of part of the crowd they lost and must appeal to again. I moved on, as did the internet. “How will Leo Burnett and AOL attract me and new users back?” is the question. I look forward to the answer.

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Sep 05, 2009

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