The Yahoos At Yahoo

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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Word has it that Yahoo is going to debut new branding in the fall, courtesy of a newly-hired CMO who has a newly hired coterie of her favorite branding gurus. There’s nothing surprising about this news: one of the first things new top marketers usually do is hire new vendors to reinvigorate or change the brand.

It’s what they do. 

Here’s what usually happens next:

  • Within about 18 months or so, she or he gets fired because the beautiful new branding didn’t have any measurable impact on the business
  • The exec swaps jobs with another similarly failed exec at another company
  • They trade vendors, and hire new teams to do new branding, and
  • Repeat

There’s a thriving ecosystem to support this carousel, from large branding firms, like Interbrand and Landor, and major ad agencies, to smaller shops and one-person operations. Everybody has a proprietary methodology, approach, or process to churn through client money; most, if not all, rely on lots of surveys and studies of various interested parties — often called "stakeholder groups" — to discover what they think about the brand.

Then some fresh, new branding is invented and revealed to the world via a company’s web site, advertising, logo, and any other point where the brand touches said stakeholders (usually called "touchpoints," not surprisingly).

Here’s the conundrum: it doesn’t matter. 

I wrote an entire book about why this approach to communicating business purpose to consumers is not only outdated, but effectively damaging to the qualities of authenticity, relevance, and meaning upon which purchase decisions rely. The traditional approach to branding, no matter how expertly or creatively realized via new media, is still an old, failed idea. You need look no further than all the money the Detroit automakers have spent ($6 billion in 2008 alone) to see proof of this truism. 

There’s absolutely nothing that a new branding campaign from Yahoo can tell its consumers, or would-be purchasers. Period. Carol Bartz, the new CEO, has effectively said as much, telling a reporter at an event in march "The best way to change the perception is to do a good job and then talk about it." 

The thing is, Yahoo doesn’t need new branding to talk about whatever it’s doing that’s worth talking about. It just has to do it and then talk about it, using all of the tools at its disposal to be authentic, relevant, and meaningful. 

What’s worth talking about is operational reality, and the participation of third-parties that can confirm those truths. The branding emerges from that stuff, and isn’t a glossy label slapped over it. And it can’t precede that stuff, either, which is exactly what I worry Yahoo is going to do.

Hiring the big gurus to do their branding thing belies a fundamental unawareness or misunderstanding of the reality that Ms. Bartz herself has referenced…or a blithe willingness to put the company’s marketing way out ahead of what the business can deliver. 

I guess it doesn’t really matter, in the end: people will choose to use or ignore Yahoo based on what its business delivers, irrespective of what the branding says. The branding really only matters to the people it enriches. 

If the business succeeds, the branding folks will take part of the credit. If profits don’t materialize, the marketers and their agencies will walk away, their heads held high and certain in the belief that they were right (and consumers were wrong)…and then go do the same thing to the next company.

What a bunch of yahoos!

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