Consumers co-star in Brand Universe

User-generated content and brands coexist on Yahoo portal, providing both their equal say

User-generated content and brands coexist on Yahoo portal, providing both their equal say

At the onset of the digital age, savvy companies invested a lot of capital into ensuring their Web sites were the online destination for their brands. While corporate Web sites are still critical in any online strategy, those companies now are acknowledging that portals and other off-site locations also have their relevance in promoting brands.

And, in Yahoo, brands have a potential partner.

In its own brand-building effort to catch up to Internet rivals like Google and MySpace, Yahoo set out to create a space where brands and user-generated content coexist to reach consumers. Called Brand Universe, the Web portal, a set of 100 entertainment Web sites that will go live over the course of 2007, will cover everything from video games to celebrities.

Yahoo describes the venture as a win-win for everyone: the company, the brands that will be represented online, and the consumers. Yahoo estimates that 1.2 million visited the first Brand Universe site, for Nintendo's Wii at wii.yahoo.com, in November 2006. The site features a mixture of content already available on Yahoo, including information from the Nintendo Wii press kit and user-generated content.

On January 30, Yahoo announced another six sites to come, focusing on Harry Potter, the Halo and Sims video games, The Office and Lost television programs, and the Transformers, a Hasbro creation that features toys, comic books, and an upcoming live-action movie.

"We have expansive consumer behavior across the network," says Sean Atkins, Yahoo head of programming and development for entertainment and games. "We realize there's an opportunity to have that on one location. The notion of aggregating passionate consumers and connecting them is exactly what Yahoo is about."

Placing brands (literally) beneath the Yahoo label raises the question of who indeed controls the message, and what controls are in place between Yahoo and its brand partners.

While Atkins says the company confers with each brand for which it plans to create a site, Anka Dolecki, contract director of PR for Nintendo of America, says the company has no formal contract with Yahoo.

"The vast majority of the content is user-generated, so it's not likely that they would influence us or vice versa. We view it as an added benefit for Wii owners and fans," Dolecki says, via e-mail. "This really illustrates the widespread, grassroots support our new system has created with gamers of all ages and backgrounds."

"We're not taking control of anyone's brand message," says Atkins. "Yahoo has never been [an entity that] takes ownership of a brand. [It] has always been an ardent supporter of our brand partners. Our site is built using our tools, but promotional tools came from PR people at Nintendo. Wii loved it."

Granted, given the size and scope of freshly updated, independent content online, only foolish brand managers could assume that, in 2007, brands have full control of their message. But marketing experts warn that companies participating on Brand Universe can be faced with a difficult decision if the message becomes skewed.

"There's risk to the [corporations] in the degree to which the essence of their brand [online] diverges from the essence of the brand in the real world," says David Martin, North American president of Interbrand. "As a brand manager, you have to make sure it's not schizophrenic."

But Art Cannon, marketing strategy partner at Chadwick Communications, says, given that Brand Universe is a Yahoo-brand relationship, it is too invested to truly be a control-free initiative.

"This is good for everyone, but, ultimately, it's about Yahoo and marketers trying to maintain control of the brand," says Cannon. "We maintain that customers own the brand; it's the sum of their association with a given product that determines its fate. User-generated content is king."

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