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August 29, 2007
The Power of Personal Brand

Following the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate in late June, I logged onto Hillary Clinton’s site to see how her team was spinning the victories and missteps from the evening before. Or at least, I tried to log on—it was before my morning coffee, and I clumsily lopped off one “l,” typing in hilaryclinton.com.

Instead of being redirected to Clinton’s home page (hillaryclinton.com), however, I landed on a page that declared, “This website coming soon.” The fine print noted that the site was hosted by GoDaddy.com, the large domain name registrar. Was it possible that a Joe Citizen like myself could buy the misspelled URL? Clicking the link to GoDaddy, I found that hilaryclinton.com was taken, as was hillaryrodhamclinton.com. But surely they’re not owned by Hillary’s camp, or visitors would presumably be redirected to her campaign site.

While presidential candidates are experimenting with user-generated content sites like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and Flickr to build and maintain their profile among the online public, it seems ironic that they’re not adequately protecting their most prized (and basic) brand asset: their names. In this day and age, no one can underestimate the power of their personal brand. As management consultant Tom Peters asserted more than a decade ago, everything done, said, worn and thought contributes to a person’s brand. Political figures know this all too well. Or that’s what I assumed before I did a little more Web surfing.

Possibly even more troubling than the Hilary (er, Hillary) URL gaffe is what I found when I entered likely URLs for Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani. This time I used only correct spellings of the former New York mayor’s name, but rudygiuliani.com, rudolphgiuliani.com and giuliani.com landed me on pages saying, “This page cannot be displayed,” “This website may be for sale by its owner!” and “The website you’re looking for cannot be found.” Fortunately for Rudy, all three contained suggested links, one of which was to the official campaign site, joinrudy2008.com. (Less fortunately for the candidate, one link leads to a promotional page for a book on Giuliani that purports to “[serve] up a powerful indictment of a flawed political leader”; other links connect to headquarters for John McCain and Mitt Romney.)

I repeated the same exercise for Barack Obama, and it seems that the Democratic candidate hasn’t snatched up his unique first or last name: barack.com is “under construction” and obama.com contains what appear to be Chinese characters. (The official site is barackobama.com.) This would be comparable to Coca-Cola not buying up all the possible variations of the official coca-cola.com URL: cocacola.com, coke.com, etc. Unacceptable on any level.

Granted, many people use Google and other search engines to find candidates’ sites. The campaigns clearly count on voters going that route; Giuliani’s joinrudy2008.com is hardly the most intuitive URL choice, but it’s the first listing if you type his name into Google. But why not purchase all the URLs that remotely resemble your name (or in the case of Rudy, the URLs that are your name)? He certainly wouldn’t want an opposition group to get its hands on them. In this era of consumer-controlled media, candidates and their names stand particularly vulnerable to assaults online, especially if some of the basics are overlooked.

To conclude my ad hoc investigation, I checked out two potential candidates as well. When I entered in fredthompson.com, I was directed to the Wikipedia entry for Thompson; it seems that at least for now, the former U.S. senator and actor is relying on the general public to tell his story. While I landed on Michael Bloomberg’s site when I typed in mikebloomberg.com, an interesting thing happened when I tried michaelbloomberg.com. I ended up on a site for Connections Media, a Washington, D.C.-based “strategy, technology, creative and campaign management service for select political, public affairs and corporate communications campaigns.” A ploy, perhaps, to secure the New York mayor’s Web-based political business.

This reminded me of a tactic employed during the height of the dot-com boom in 2000 by the president of a New York-based multinational advertising agency. To recruit a rising digital star, he bought the candidate’s name in the form of a URL “for some pathetic price, like $35,” he told me. He then dangled it in front of the young gun until he took the offer. It was revolutionary for the time.

Practicing what I preach, I’ve just bought two URLs: annmack.com and annmmack.com (as I often use my middle initial “M”) from GoDaddy.com for some pathetic price, like $36.60. I’m not narcissistic, just practical.

As I was checking out, GoDaddy gave me the option to buy variations of the URLs. The rationale provided was straightforward and smart: it keeps the competition from owning a name that draws customers to them rather than to you; it provides more opportunities to market to consumers—and be listed in search engines; it provides customers more ways to find you when searching online; it allows for common misspellings of your domain name; and it protects your brand and online image from those who may have unsavory intentions.

Candidates, would-be candidates and rising stars, take note.

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Ann M. Mack is the director of trendspotting at JWT. In the post, she oversees all global trendspotting, both custom made for clients and syndicated, and manages the intelligence analysts in JWT’s strategic content area. She has worked on projects for such clients as Unilever, Estée Lauder, Pfizer, Kellogg’s, and Kimberly-Clark, among others. In the role, Ann combines her insatiable curiosity and intuition with her keen observational and listening skills, which she honed during her nearly 10 years as a journalist.

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