Trevor Little

Pharmacy chain Boots has become the latest company to signal an intention to terminate a registry agreement (RA), this time for the ‘.boots’ top-level domain (TLD). While a negative development for the new generic TLD (gTLD) programme, it should not be viewed as an indicator that ‘.brands’ are losing their lustre – on the contrary, the rollout of branded spaces shows no sign of slowing.

On Domain Incite, Kevin Murphy reported the news that the company informed ICANN in April that it is unilaterally terminating the RA for ‘.boots’, with ICANN opening it up for comment this week. Murphy notes that the string is the first single-dictionary-word gTLD (Boots having both a brand and non-brand meaning) to be taken off the market, the ‘.brand’ termination process meaning that it will not be relegated to another registration or made available to a third party for two years after the contract ends.

The move makes Boots the latest company to make a U-turn on its decision to run a ‘.brand’. Others that have previously decided against proceeding with ‘.brand’ applications including South Korean industrial conglomerate Doosan, publisher Guardian News & Media and cosmetics giant L’Oreal. However, do not take this as a negative indicator on the ROI or attraction of ‘.brands’.

On the issue of domains, one metric often scrutinised when assessing the new gTLD programme is the number of domains registered in new gTLDs. While the overall figure – at time of writing – is approaching 27 million, ‘.brands’ are not a significant contributor. But one size does not fit all and this particular metric is not indicative of success or failure. At this year’s INTA Annual Meeting, for example, CSC Digital Brand Services’ Gretchen Olive noted that ‘.brands’ are neither in a rush to launch or subject to economic pressures to do so as registration sales are not central to their economic model: “Success is not measured by registrations or profit, but instead the unique strategic business goals of each individual brand.” This sentiment was backed up by Accenture’s Kristen Poggensee, who participated in the session with Gretchen. Part of a cross-company team – drawing on legal, marketing and IT – that is driving the digital strategy behind ‘.accenture’, she explained: “Right now we are not looking to just switch from ‘.com’ to ‘.accenture’. Instead we are taking a phased approach and testing the water. This is an evolving strategy.”

Instead, then, the analysis should focus less on numbers, and more on use and how the deployment of branded spaces is being approached. In the upcoming issue of World Trademark Review we present analysis of the ‘.brand’ environment from Nick Wood, managing director of Valideus. In his analysis, Wood notes that over 500 ‘.brands’ are now in operation - including ‘.audi’, ‘.barclays’ and ‘.sharp’ – with more than 100 boasting active second-level domain name registrations, and 17 of these actively using their ‘.brand’ as their main corporate or consumer website address. The latter includes Barclays, Bradesco, Canon, Citic and State Bank of India.

Another branded user is The National Association of Realtors (NAR), which as well as using ‘.realtor’ itself allows its members to utilise the space. NAR recently won the ‘Not-for-Profit Organisation Team of the Year’ accolade at this year’s WTR Industry Awards and when we talked to Chloe Hecht, associate counsel, after the ceremony she reflected: “NAR’s ‘.realtor’ TLD is an excellent example of the organisation evolving along with members’ methods of leveraging the Realtor brand (within the parameters of NAR’s trademark rules, of course). Most members’ marketing plans focus on a heavy online presence and NAR worked for over seven years to create an online space exclusively for its members. In fact, ‘.realtor’ is the only new TLD reserved exclusively for a membership.” NAR validates all domain registrations and renewals to ensure that domains are only licensed by active members, and the organisation clearly sees its gTLD offering as a key marketing benefit for members.

As Wood notes, increasing numbers of rights holders are now stepping up use of their ‘.brand’ domains – as evidenced above – but many are also treading cautiously. As well as not wishing to “dilute hard-won (and expensive) Google rankings”, they are also “watching and waiting, learning from the experiences of those who have gone before”. Testing is being carried out, with brands using their ‘.brand’ in areas where the impact of any tests are measurable. As a result, often activity will go under the radar, as tests are run using sub-segments of returning customers. Wood adds: “We know of two supplier-oriented portals created on ‘.brand’ spaces which are open only to those supplying secure data and services to the brands.” In short – activity is going on even if you can’t see it.

It could be that Boots is not the final company to decide that – more than five years after deciding to apply – a branded TLD is not now for them (after all, five years is a long time in the online world and as companies develop and evolve their strategies, priorities do change). However, as the rollout continues, early adopters are still testing use and the smart money is on ‘.brands’ being a driver of applications when the next round opens up – whenever that may be.  

The new gTLDS landscape is the focus of a session at this year’s Managing Trademark Assets, held in Chicago on October 17. For more information, visit the event website here

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