By Karl Greenberg
Like it or not, brands are heading to the right side of the dot. Next year, top-level domain extensions will evolve beyond .com, .net, .org., .edu and various country codes to include, well, just about anything that a brand, individual, organization, or federal body can think of, snag or pay for.
The evolution in domain names, which has been in the works for seven years at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the governing body of the Internet, has profound implications for brands. Ben Crawford, CEO of the U.K.-based domain registry, has been pitching a "use it or lose it" message to companies around the world since June 20 is a watershed moment for top-level domain (TLD) extensions. That is when ICANN will initiate the application process for the launch of between 400 and 2,000 new TLDs in keywords (like .sport and .law), cities (like .NYC) and brands.
Crawford said that about 54% of clients surveyed by a brand protection agency in the U.K. this year said they would acquire TLD extensions of their brand names. He said several brands -- including Canon, Hitachi, Unicef, and Deloitte -- have said they would do so. As have the cities of Paris, (.Paris) and New York, and the League of Arab States, which has plans to grab ".Arab."
Brands should get involved because it lets them unite their services and products, functional areas, promotions locations and sub-brands under one name that consumers can easily recognize. "If I were CMO of, say, MTV, with thousands of Web sites, I can unify them under .MTV, under one family. It helps me build my umbrella brand off of the back of consumer brands people are familiar with, like JerseyShore.MTV."
This also makes it harder for counterfeiters, phishers, scammers and other dark-side players to mess with one's brand -- an issue Crawford says is particularly important for luxury brands, and banks: the former deal with a market flooded with fakes and the latter spend millions dealing with consumers who got false pitches. "If you are Barclays, it's as easy as telling consumers that 'it's only Barclays if it says .barclays.'"
He says a more relevant risk that should motivate marketers to make their brand names their TLD extensions is that any other registered extension that is "confusingly similar" will make it impossible to do so. "Say the apple farmers union wants .apples, that means .apple is not available. It's not just exact matches."
Crawford says the benefits include easy digital vectors to short-term promotions requiring a Web site. With a .brand domain anything goes, as marketers don't have to look for a name that matches the promotion and isn't already taken. "Now when you do promotion, you have to ask if the domain name is available -- it takes that issue out of the equation because every domain name is available if your brand is the extension."
Crawford adds that a .brand domain name obviates some ongoing headaches for a few major brands whose names are not their own. The best-known example may be Nissan, which doesn't get to use nissan.com, as the domain has for years been owned by a guy whose business is, apparently, owning nissan.com. Theoretically, that would become a non-issue if Nissan owned .Nissan. Crawford points out that because of the cost and complexity of applying and maintaining a .brand, it is unlikely that just anyone will try to grab a brand. "There is a lot involved. You can't get a top-level domain until you can prove to ICANN that you can manage it."
Trademark attorneys have been very active in trying to delay the .brand movement because they say their clients will have to buy thousands of names defensively to protect their brand, according to Crawford. "That's a valid argument. There is awareness at companies but it's in legal and IP protection, not marketing."
But he says ICANN has addressed the need for defensive buying of names, as there are new rules that expedite the removal of fraudulent or misleadingly similar names. "At the moment, if someone has a domain name that includes your trademark, you can then go through the arbitration process. If that doesn't work, you can file a complaint. With the new top-level domains, there will be a more rapid takedown policy."
He says there will also be "sunrise" periods that give trademark owners the option of buying a domain name before it goes on the open market.
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