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Watch Out, Brands: The Controversial .Sucks Domain Is Almost Here
Early registration begins later this month, but brands that want to register their trademarked names before the general public will pay a hefty price.
Among the 500+ new, generic top-level domains (gTLDs) that have been approved, few have generated as much concern and consternation as .sucks.
Before he left office, US Senator Jay Rockefeller told ICANN — the international organization that manages the internet’s domain name system — that the domain has “little or no public interest value” and called it “little more than a predatory shakedown scheme” aimed at getting businesses to spend big money on defensive domain registrations. When early reports spread about what it might cost a trademark holder to protect itself with a .sucks domain, domain industry insiders called it shocking and .crap.
Controversy or not, .sucks is almost here. A company called Momentous won ICANN’s auction last November via its subsidiary, Vox Populi, giving it the right to operate the .sucks gTLD. The early registration period — “sunrise” is the official term — starts on March 30th and general availability begins on June 1st.
What are brands to do? And what will the impact be on trademark protection and reputation management? We turned to some experts for thoughts on that. First, a look at the controversy surrounding this new domain.
Conversation or Consternation?
Vox Populi is positioning the new gTLD as a platform for conversation. Its website declares that the domain “is designed to help consumers find their voices and allow companies to find the value in criticism.” In a phone interview with Marketing Land, Vox Populi CEO John Berard repeated that mantra, saying that the company sees “an opportunity for an increased back and forth between brands and consumers.”
Just last week, the company released a video that includes an endorsement from consumer advocate Ralph Nader and, in all seriousness, includes scenes from civil rights and other citizen protests with the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Berard says the company isn’t comparing itself or the new domain to Dr. King. “We want [the domain] to be seen as important not just in the commercial arena, but also in the arena of public discourse. I hope people view [the video] as respectful.”
Whatever consternation the video may (or may not) create, it has a way to go before it reaches the level of controversy over the pricing that Vox Populi has set for .sucks.
The .sucks Sticker Shock
Companies that want to protect their names in this new gTLD may suffer severe sticker shock when they see the suggested pricing.
Later this year, consumers will be able to buy a .sucks domain for $10 per year via a “consumer advocate subsidy.” Any consumers that get a domain at that price will have to redirect it to a discussion forum that will live on the everything.sucks domain. Consumers that want to run their own website using .sucks will pay $249 per year for a standard registration, unless Vox Populi has labeled the domain “premium” — those may cost more.
Meanwhile — and this is where the real controversy comes in — companies that are registered with the Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH) will have to pay $2,500 per domain during the sunrise period, and the same amount every year they renew their domain(s).
“The pricing is a little complicated. It’s not easily discernible,” says Michael Berkens, editor of the domain industry website TheDomains.com.
It’s worse than complicated, says Rick Schwartz, one of the domain industry’s most successful entrepreneurs. “The entire extension is based on brand extortion,” he told Marketing Land via e-mail, echoing Senator Rockefeller’s comments.
Domain industry veteran Ron Sheridan, the former business development director for Domain Sponsor and Oversee.net, agrees with Schwartz. “I can think of no other way to label it than what it is: plain and simple economic extortion,” he told us, also via e-mail.
Vox Populi deflects the accusations. Berard says the price is reflective of the value of the domain. “If you look at it as just another domain, you’re missing the point,” he says. Berard also says the $2500 price isn’t an attempt to discourage brands from registering .sucks domains. “Our intention is not to discourage brands from registering domains. Our goal is to get people [and brands] to use these. If we priced them at a buck, people would register a lot of domains and put them in the drawer.”
Vox Populi will have policies in place that won’t allow employees to register company names at the $10 per year rate. “I have no idea how they’ll enforce such a thing,” Berkens says. “Big companies have thousands of employees.”
Berard says the company will have a verification system in place for everyone that wants to register domains as a consumer, and he doesn’t think companies will try to skirt its rules. “If a brand was to do that and get found out, it would be very embarrassing for them.”
How Should Brands Respond To .sucks?
While Vox Populi sees .sucks as a platform for conversation, brands will probably only be interested in .sucks for defensive purposes — i.e., as a way to protect their trademarked names by registering domains before the general public can.
Sheridan thinks they should. “The practical reality for big brands,” he says, “is as soon as one of their brands goes live on a .sucks domain, the social media blowback and associated negative PR will create a financial impact far and away larger than the $2,500 worst case scenario if they [register the domain] early and preemptively.”
Not everyone agrees. Andy Beal, CEO of the branding and reputation management agency Reputation Refinery, told us via e-mail that he doesn’t think most companies need to worry about .sucks. “The $2500 yearly price tag isn’t worth the investment when you consider that, for $10, a detractor can register YourBrandSucks.com and have the same impact,” he says. “When was the last time you read about a negative domain causing a reputation issue for a company? A negative tweet, Yelp review, or blog post can do far more damage.”
Legal Front: Consumers vs. Brands
“Some companies might just file a UDRP [Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy challenge] or go right into Federal Court and seek damages depending on use and motivation,” Schwartz says.
But “use” is a key point. In the US legal system, criticism is generally allowed under fair use law — that’s why websites with domains like paypalsucks.com and uhaul-sucks.com are owned by consumers and allowed to operate.
The .sucks gTLD “could be the hardest one to take away” via legal challenge, says Berkens — who’s also a lawyer. “If they actually put up a website [using .sucks], the consumer is probably going to win.”
Will Brands Bite On .sucks?
It appears that .sucks is something of a minefield for big brands. We contacted almost 10 well-known consumer brands last week for their thoughts on the new domain and to ask if they plan to register any .sucks names; none answered our questions, even when we offered anonymity.
Schwartz says he thinks some brands will ignore .sucks simply because most consumers won’t even know it exists. “The majority of the 350 extensions that have already been released in the past 12 months [are] not even known by the public and may never be known.”
The bigger question, Berkens says, is whether .sucks is even necessary. He points out that angry consumers can already register “sucks”-style domains with .com, like the Paypal and U-Haul examples mentioned above, or with another gTLD. And he thinks big brands will be turned off by the pricing for this new gTLD.
“I’m guessing trademark owners are not going to pay $2,500 per year for each domain,” Berkens says. “I don’t think [Vox Populi] will get the defensive registrations. I don’t think trademark owners are going to play.”
But playing is exactly what one creative branding agency executive suggests companies do. Adam Padilla of New York City-based BrandFire thinks brands could actually have fun with the new gTLD.
“I can certainly see an edgy, socially-driven, promotional campaign centering around a .sucks domain with matching hashtag and hilarious viral video embedded,” he told Marketing Land via e-mail. “Badbreath.sucks for a chewing gum company, boringfood.sucks for a fast food concern … the possibilities are endless.”