Greg Sterling called attention to AT&T Yellowpages.com’s apparent rebranding project which will use “YP.com” as their dominant online site/brand going forward.
While I’ve been openly critical of some of AT&T directories’ decisions in the past, I think this is definitely a smart move. I think there’s sufficient indication that the concept and recognition of the “Yellow Pages” brand is becoming obsolete. It would appear that AT&T agrees with me, since this amounts to a major tectonic shift in their branding.
Rather than being joined at the hip with a rapidly-eroding brand concept, AT&T’s move will allow them a lot greater flexibility. Much like the brand name for Yelp, I think that YP.com has something of the best of both worlds. For younger consumers, it will seem non-specific enough that it won’t carry all the connotative baggage of traditional yellow pages — it will allow the company to evolve more rapidly into local search business models which are effective with consumers, and the shorter domain name plays very well with both mobile and microblogging/Twitter usage. For older consumers who recall what yellow pages are, it will still reference the past origin, communicating services similar to what is expected.
Now, my past criticism of AT&T’s moves was based upon the supposed SEO values of buying both Yellowpages.com and YP.com, along with the observation that the brandname value of “Yellow Pages” appears to be eroding in the public mass-consciousness. Some had spun the YP.com purchase as a smart move for SEO and Mobile – neither of which turned out to be true, at least in terms of ROI. So, I think this reverse-course move actually proves me right to large degree. Since they now already own YP.com, shifting to that brandname doesn’t incur more domain-purchase cost, and I think that brand could be better developed for ongoing value. Their only other choice might have been to try to shore up the erosion of the broad “Yellow Pages” concept/brand itself, which just would not be worth the cost-vs-value proposition, in my opinion.
AT&T’s move contrasts with the recent yellow pages rebranding effort of the Yellow Pages Group in Canada. In that rebrand exercise, YPG made an altogether subtle graphic change to their logo icon, intending it to convey a “multi-platform” product and modernity. Unfortunately, I think it’s tantamount to tweaking a picture attached to the word “8-Track Tapes” in order to keep it feeling contemporary — being attached to name which may be rapidly obsolescent is like tying yourself to a concrete block that’s been thrown overboard. AT&T recognizes this, and has shifted to a name that’s more divorced from the legacy concept. (Günter Soydanbay, a brand strategy consultant, considers YPG’s new logo an improvement, though he agrees it could’ve been a bigger change.)
I’m not necessarily thrilled with the continued use of the “walking fingers” iconography — I think that symbol may actually have less brand recognition than the “Yellow Pages” name itself. However, this symbol in the logo seems to be something that’s much easier to change in the future, without losing equity that’s been developed on the brand, than attempting to switch to a whole new name.
One could consider the Yellowpages.com-to-YP.com change to be something of a transitional step, considering that YP is an abbreviation for “yellow pages”. But, I think it’s also a name that could work long-term as well, since it seems more abstract. Conventional wisdom for brands these days seems to bend towards considering more abstracted names/logos as more strategically beneficial over longterm, since they can evolve in many different directions along with a company’s business needs. (“Google” and “Yahoo!” could be cases in point.)
The one major issue AT&T’s rebranding move will have involves all of the links they’ve built up which point to Yellowpages.com URLs. That SEO value is now a major asset, so this needs to be managed carefully so that the “baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater,” so to speak.
When a company moves to a new branded domain name, there are a few different ways to handle the change. One can keep the legacy URLs alive for some period of time or indefinitely. One can redirect them to new URLs. Or, one can simply kill the old URLs, erroring them out or sending them nowhere — this latter option basically throws away all the goodwill one has built over time. There’s some subtlety with the various options, and pros and cons with each.
AT&T’s yellow pages SEO team has improved considerably over the past few years, and my prediction at this point is that they’ll likely manage the URL/brand shift effectively. If so, they’ll reap benefit from the new brand flexibility while retaining all their SEO capital.
POSTSCRIPT 4/6/2010: AT&T just issued a press release about the change today, “AT&T Interactive Introduces Next-Gen Local Search Experience: YP.com“.