Armstrong On AOL’s New Branding And ‘Very, Very, Very Inexpensive’ Campaign

The glimpse AOL (NYSE: TWX) offered late Sunday night of its new branding campaign looked more like icons for AIM, not a branding campaign for a company on the verge of reinvention. That’s because what we’re seeing now is only a teaser, as AOL CEO Tim Armstrong told paidContent in a rare evening interview.

For instance, if you just glance at the new AOL logo — ‘Aol.’ — about all the lowercase lettering suggests is a complete break with the notion of AOL as acronym and the period at the end is just that. But to the man leading AOL down the homestretch to the Dec. 9 spinoff from Time Warner, it’s “Aol Dot.” The dot is a pivot point that shows AOL plus something else — Aol.Music, Aol.Asylum, Aol.MapQuest. Or hundreds of something elses. It’s also a sign that AOL is part of the web now, not on its own. Whether others will see what he does when the full campaign is unveiled is about as easy to predict as the stock price when the market closes on AOL’s first day back. Armstrong is betting they will. He explains:

The concept: “There’s always something behind AOL. That’s the thing that we’re hoping to get across with our AOL brand. The AOL brand is composed of many different things.The nomenclature of the dot is what comes after the dot,” Armstrong explained. He says that should all be clearer once the “more holistic brand presence” is unveiled Dec. 10, which is when the new AOL opens for business, and as the campaign rolls out over the next few weeks. As for introducing it out of context, when I asked if he thought that was risky, Armstrong replied: “I don’t think there’s really any risk in it because the future of our business is really about showing people what we’re doing. It’s one of those things in the next few years that will be a sea change in AOL.”

The background: One of the top pieces of feedback Armstrong internally and externally has heard since he joined the company last spring is the amount of work being done and the number of assets at AOL people don’t recognize. “We made a decision which was really to use the AOL brand to highlight the other work getting done.” When I asked if anyone pushed back about not trying for a singular iconic look, Armstrong replied: “The hardest part about brands is everybody’s got an opinion. What really matters is how well you like our products and services. … We looked at a lot of different brand treatments. We felts this was the one that captured what was happening at the company underneath the surface. People see AOL as a big turnaround, but there is so much creativity at the company now.”

Going lowercase: What are people supposed to think when they see the images and the mixed-case logo? Because people see AOL as a big, iconic global brand, Armstrong said, “we thought it was important to keep the a, the o, the l, but we were okay changing the case of the o and the l because it’s kind of a lead in to the dot and to where things are going. … Having people look at the identity differently will probably have them at least be open to thinking about the brand differently, something’s changed, been updated — another reason for them think differently about AOL.”

Campaign costs: Don’t expect a megabucks marketing and branding campaign a la Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO). Google (NSDQ: GOOG) ad vet Armstrong comes from a company that knows how to leverage its own marketing power. AOL will focus on the hundreds of thousands of pages that come off its own server for “tens of millions of people every day.” Armstrong calls that being authentic. Put another way, AOL is going to preach to the converted first — hoping to keep them that way. As for a dollar figure, “it’s going to be very, very, very inexpensive because we’re focused on just improving the products and services. I would say the marketing budget is the budget we’re using on product development and the changes we’re making.”

‘Show-me state’: Several times as we talked, Armstrong referred to AOL’s life in the “show-me state — and he doesn’t mean Missouri. For instance, “we have all the marketing we need right now, just showing people the improvements we’re making at AOL.”

AOL News not disappearing: At the same time that AOL is rebranding its corporate image, it’s changing or adding product brands. For instance, late last week, AOL confirmed that AOL News was being rebranded as Turns out not quite, according to Armstrong. “We still will have AOL News, there’s still an AOL News portal. Sphere is basically the updated news site. We were ok with that name because we felt we’re keeping the AOL News site and property, and Sphere gave us a way to launch a new news brand, which allows us more creativity in how we present the news, aggregate it, etc.” He said Sphere is designed to take advantage of the news assets at AOL. “Sphere is one of the examples where we have a new brand, a new asset, but we certainly will be standing behind AOL as a major hub — AOL Finance, AOL News, those areas. “