Trademark owners are in the midst of another ‘think’ about the best way to protect and preserve their reputations online. Specifically, beginning on March 30, 2015 the Sunrise Period opened for brand owners to fork over $2499 for domain names that end in .sucks. This $2499 payment is necessary annually to keep yourbrand.sucks from the clutches of an unhappy customer who might use it to make a career out of publishing any material they wish (fair, unfair or otherwise) about your company, or if you are celebrity – about your performance or personal life. To add insult to this expensive injury, after the end of the Sunrise Period, pretty much anyone (other than the brand owner) can pick up the same domains for $9.99 making the barrier to entry for complainants rather low.
As reported by The World Trademark Review and others, the CEO of .sucks registrar Vox Populi, John Berard, claims that intent of the apparently inapt pricing scheme is to encourage brand owners to engage with consumers. By making the price high, there will be less warehousing of domains and some brand domains will find their way into the hands of people who will engage meaningfully with brand owners.
So far, Apple, Hersheys, Monsanto, Citigroup and Kevin Spacey are among those who have decided that they would rather pay than suck, suggesting that at least these brands don’t believe that all commentary will be fair if they allow the market to engage with them via use of .sucks.
The idea that brand owners ought to engage with customers in meaningful fora is respectable enough. But you have to question the unbalanced price for entry or whether the rules of engagement ought to be set by a private, profit-seeking company in a scheme that, by its very design starts by tarnishing and diminishing a brand with a provocative label before any open conversation can even occur. One wonders what the going rate could have been to purchase a .discuss or .critique domain.
The IP community is having none of it, and, in an interesting twist, on March 27, 2015 the Intellectual Property Constituency (“IPC”) of ICANN (the entity charged with technical coordination of the domain name system) complained to ICANN about what it termed the predatory pricing by Vox. In particular, the IPC contended that the pricing constituted a breach of Vox’s contract with ICANN and ICANN’s existing policies. In response, On April 9th ICANN threw the dispute to the FTC and the Canadian Office of Consumer Affairs asking each for an assessment on whether Vox’s pricing scheme or business “violat[es] any laws or regulations enforced by [their[ respective offices.”
Although early, so far neither office has responded to ICANN publicly. In the meantime brand owners and celebrities still must make decisions on whether to pay the $2499 or risk the slings and arrows of its customer base or angry fans. While considering the .sucks conundrum, brand owners would be well-advised to consider more global strategies for managing reputation and positive customer engagement. Analysts have noted that even blocking a .sucks domain won’t avoid negative reviews or viral commentary on the web. Addressing these broader issues requires a lot more planning and forethought than merely investing in blocking one provocative domain name.
There are a plethora of consultants and internet companies who now specialize in reputation monitoring and repair that can assist companies with any negative online commentary. A recent round up by one industry analyst strongly suggests that the right consultant or service can assist with preserving brand reputation, and that the key is simply finding the right service to meet your budget and profile needs. While these consultants and services require investment, because the services are generally more universal, they are almost certainly a better expenditure than trying to stem criticism by blocking a single .sucks domain.
Most such services focus on SEO optimization, content management and some form of PR via appropriate social media. Others, like Polpeo specialize in preparing clients to handle the inevitable negative viral campaign so that internal marketing personnel can manage reputation in real time without relying on a service provider while in a crisis. The bottom line is that solutions are never simple or cheap, as brand owners know all too well.