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Should Brands Book a .Sucks or .Porn Domain?

For some, it's a question of creativity, not caution

Companies have to decide whether to buy such URLs. Image: Getty Images — Illustration: Rachel Cutler

Could the new .sucks and .porn Web domain options be a public relations nightmare for brands? Should companies buy these new URLs to preempt pranksters? Should they even consider actually using them as legitimate sites?

After CNN.com revealed yesterday that Taylor Swift had purchased TaylorSwift.sucks and TaylorSwift.porn, it became evident that marketers are on the clock when it comes to deciding whether owning those domains is the right move.

Until June 1, certain entities, such as trademarked brands and celebrities, get right-of-first-refusal for many domains. This so-called "sunrise period" before June is decreed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), giving companies the chance to nab the URLs before anyone ranging from malicious trolls to competitors to consumer activists can stake claim to the digital real estate.

One can imagine the messaging hay that could be made against McDonald's by a junk-food activist or against the National Rifle Association by a gun-control advocacy group. Or what if Pepsi bought Coke.sucks?

"Megabrands like Coke, McDonald's and Walmart would be remiss not to block their big competitors and disgruntled consumers from snagging a .sucks domain," said Adam Padilla, creative director at BrandFire. "Pepsi will not likely have the chutzpah to create a campaign around a Coke.sucks domain, although that would actually be so on-the-nose that it might be brilliant."

Adweek reached out to several brands, including the ones Padilla listed, to see if they had a plan in place for the .sucks and .porn domains. At press time, none had replied with an explanation. And the reason is probably simple: They are likely figuring out what to do.

There's No Clear .Sucks Strategy

Kevin Purcer, Erwin Penland's director of digital strategy, has a different take on the emerging situation than Padilla.

"I don't see any real difference between BrandXsucks.com and BrandX.sucks, or @BrandXsucks, for that matter," Purcer said. "If consumers want to trash a brand online, they will do so. Trying to combat it by purchasing these [new domains] is a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? Do you buy Brandreally.sucks as well? What about next year if they release .blows? I'd advise brands to spend that money improving the customer experience instead."

Victor Pineiro, vp of social media at Big Spaceship, said that instead of trying to buy every possible domain, brands should treat vanity websites—a term that constitutes anything other than .com and .net domains—as microsites for one-off campaigns. "If they were to do it, it would be for something with a little more surprise and delight versus actually really investing and building up a dot-com," Pineiro explained.

The registry for .sucks is run by Vox Populi, which hasn't revealed information about what branded domains have been bought. A scroll through ICM Registry's domain check for .porn shows what trademarked marketers and brands are already buying. For example, it appears that McDonald's and Walmart have bought .porn domains. Pepsi and Coca-Cola, on the other hand, haven't gone there.

Even though .porn and .sucks aren't live yet, brands have been buying out vanity websites for quite some time. Last year, .luxury became available to the public, with Chanel, Valentino and Bulgari snatching up their brand extensions. The goal is to band together luxury names that have a certain mystique and high-end appeal, though some are skeptical if consumers are willing to type in a special URL to shop.

"That [Web] extension requires a different behavior on the user's behalf," said Ana Andjelic, a marketing strategist who specializes in luxury brands. "Everyone is used to just typing .com when they're going to brand sites—luxury or nonluxury brands. It doesn't make a difference or differentiate luxury brands if they are .com or not."

And there are search marketing pitfalls to using .sucks or .porn as microsites because obscure domains can drag down a brand's organic Google results, said Andrew Delamarter, director of search and inbound marketing at Huge. But once again underscoring the variance in opinion on the subject, Padilla of BrandFire remarked that brands should think outside of the box when it comes to a negative-leaning URL.

"What if the right fast-food chain or snack food leveraged the 'food porn' concept, for example, and locked down Doritos.porn or BurgerKing.porn?" he said. "What if Coke were to utilize Coke.sucks and create a pseudo-slanderous campaign from the perspective of the polar bears, with the idea that they are trying to hoard all the delicious Coca-Cola for themselves? A skilled creative agency would be able to leverage the built-in press to create a fun piece of buzz marketing."

Shielding Off Digital Attackers

Soda brands, in particular, may want to take his advice—otherwise obesity watchdogs and critics on the subject of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners could pounce.

"I always like beating these companies to the punch," said Dr. Kevin Strong, founder of Dunk the Junk, which works to educate youngsters and parents about the potential health risks of junk food through social media, sports (chiefly basketball) and music.

His organization took aim at Pepsi during the brand's Super Bowl sponsorship with tweets and posts. And while he said the syntactical negativity around ".sucks" would probably not fit his outfit's positive message, Strong can see the allure for other activists in his realm.

"Since Taylor Swift is a Diet Coke promoter, it would be funny if somebody turned it on her and [bought] DietCokeandTaylorSwift.sucks," he said. "It could be clever."

It will definitely be worth watching in the next three months whether brands come under attack.

"In this age of social sharability, there aren't many areas where corporations can truly control the message," Padilla concluded, "but a slanderous domain name like .sucks has to be considered one such area."

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