The Huffington Post rebranded as HuffPost earlier this year © FT
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Branding is a tough business for internet companies. Once-mighty names such as MySpace and Napster can become obscure in the space of a few years.

Even some of the biggest and most successful companies on the web are constantly rebranding to try to stay relevant. One of the most recent examples is The Huffington Post, which announced in late April that it will hence be known simply as HuffPost and relaunched with a new design, a new mission, and a new editor-in-chief, Lydia Polgreen, who joined the company from the New York Times.

The branding change was driven by Jared Grusd, chief executive of HuffPost, who said in an interview last month that the name change was a natural progression from the work that he had undertaken since joining the company in August of 2015.

Mr Grusd, who assumed his current role after founder Arianna Huffington stepped down last year, said the value, credibility and function of news websites had been called into question by the loud and public debate about “fake news”.

He said a revamp of the site would bring a greater focus on original news. Earlier this month, however, cutbacks at parent company Verizon prompted HuffPost to let go of 39 of its staff — including its one and only Pulitzer Prize writer.

An even older web name, About.com, last month came up with a different way of rebranding. The company, which runs a network of internet sites, split into a number of smaller, more niche topic areas. The core About.com site was renamed dotdash.com and plays host to the smaller individual sub-brands.

Speaking at the Collision technology and media conference in New Orleans, chief executive Neil Vogel said the habits of web readers were changing and that a general content portal with articles about a vast number of different subjects was no longer what visitors wanted. “Nobody wants diabetes advice from the place they learn to stain their floors,” he said.

The site had seen declining revenues and traffic after IAC, the media and internet company, led by chairman Barry Diller, acquired it from New York Times in August 2012. Despite a redesign of the site, IAC was not able to halt the decline until, according to Mr Vogel, it hit on the idea of splitting up its subject areas into separate, standalone web sites: Verywell (health), The Spruce (home), The Balance (personal finance), Lifewire (tech), ThoughtCo (education) and TripSavvy (travel).

“Here’s what we realised: we’re doing it wrong. What we were doing was the wrong thing better,” said Mr Vogel. “It means that our model — the About.com model — of a general information portal website was from the 1990s . . . But then the world changed and today it’s vertical brands that are what people trust.”

Simon Kelly, chief executive of New York-based branding and marketing company Story Worldwide, says the rebranding exercise will be difficult. “Tailoring content along audience needs is smart, but the challenge is that [the new dotdash.com] is in no better position than any other start up,” he says.

Even highly successful companies constantly rebrand themselves to make sure they stay relevant. YouTube, a division of Google, for example, was looking for a way to attract more television advertisers away from traditional broadcast TV. According to Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, the company faced resistance from companies that worried their advertisements would be run alongside controversial videos that they would not want to be associated with.

To counter this issue, the company created a new brand in 2014 called Google Preferred, which gives advertisers more control of where their content appears — while still giving advertisers access to YouTube’s highly desirable young demographic.

“It’s our means to make it simple for television dollars to flow to YouTube,” Mr Mohan told the audience at Collision, adding that the new brand had increased YouTube’s year-on-year TV advertising revenue by 65 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Creating “brand extensions” like this has been Google’s tactic for entering different niches of the TV market. YouTube Red, for example, was launched in 2015 offering ad-free videos and original films, in competition with premium streaming TV and movie services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

Mr Kelly says creating sub-brands can be an effective way to push into a crowded market. “[YouTube’s] challenge is whether they can change the habits of an audience with an already bewildering array of streaming choices,” he says. “If they’re smart, they’ll identify which audience segments, or tribes, are least served and then push home a differentiating proposition.”


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