International Business: Overstock.com, O.co and domain branding ideal for the international web

Published: Friday, April 5 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

A worker walks between the rows and rows of merchandise in stock at Overstock.com's warehouse and distribution center Friday, March 31, 2006, in Salt Lake City.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

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Online brands sometimes make global business more difficult than necessary when they use names and Internet domains that international customers can't type, find or understand. The European music website once known as Vitaminic saw these challenges when it marketed outside its home market.

International challenges of online brands

“(Vitaminic) had an established identity with German, French and Italian users — (the users) had no problem with the name, readily identifying it with popular music,” writes Michael White in the textbook "A Short Course in International Marketing Blunders." “But the company quickly found that the name caused problems for potential web site visitors in the UK, Canada and the U.S., who ‘couldn’t say it, couldn’t spell it and thought it was a website for health products like vitamins,’ according to one observer.”

Due to the nature of the Internet, some brands and domains are confusing even in their language of origin. For example, in a lowercase URL, the website for the U.K. clothing company ChildrensWear.co.uk can easily be misread www.ChildrenSwear.co.uk. The letter “s” also causes problems for teacherstalking.org. Similarly, UST Inc.’s domain www.ustinc.com was changed due to obvious challenges in pronunciation.

O.co and successfully internationalized online brands

In contrast, many companies have created brands with the goals to avoid misunderstanding in most cultures and also make them easy to find — usually by keeping them short and sweet. As mentioned previously in this column, Microsoft wisely chose the Bing search brand, partially because of the name’s simplicity and positive or neutral connotations in most countries.

For similar reasons, Utah-based online retailer Overstock.com has created O.co, a brilliantly simple brand for global markets where the term “Overstock” may not be as easy for customers to spell, understand or remember. When the Web-based marketplace rebranded to O.co, company chairman Patrick Byrne noted — at an Asian-American trade panel in 2011 — that one of the main reasons for the change was future entry into China and other international markets.

“Clearly non-English speaking Internet users have an easier time typing O.co than Overstock.com,” says Ed White, director of international business at Overstock.com. “The global branding benefits are evident in the brand’s simplicity.”

Although the company reverted its brand back to Overstock.com in the U.S., it maintains O.co for its international business.

“Everything has always been about the O,” said Byrne in a 2011 interview with Forbes.com. “We’ve tried to make it in people’s minds like the Nike Swoosh.”

Indeed, O.co is not the first place where Overstock.com has highlighted the O. The trademark letter has also been emphasized in television commercials, on the business-to-business site O.biz and on the customer review site O.info.

Local brand adaptation

Many companies would love to be able to implement a simple image or single letter that will achieve worldwide recognition, such as the green Starbucks siren or McDonald’s letter M. These logos can be replicated in many countries without translation. Furthermore, if the image uses a simple word or letter, customers can easily remember the brand and then find it successfully online. However, even if all brands can not be consolidated to a single letter, many brands can be adapted or simplified to improve accessibility in international markets.

“The O.co brand has many advantages, but it is not written in stone,” explains White. “It could always change. It may require a rebrand in the future, and that rebrand could even be different in each country.”

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