What’s A Brand, Anyway? The Story of Nuts.com

8/28/12Follow @anneswift

The New York Times certainly thought we were nuts, as did Forbes and Al Ries in AdAge, all of whom agreed that our six-figure acquisition of the nuts.com domain and our re-branding from NutsOnline to Nuts.com was an example of overspending. Was it?

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I joined Cranford, NJ-based Nuts.com a year ago as the head of marketing (aka Chief Marketing Nut). Even before I became an employee, I was a customer. I knew about how Jeffrey Braverman, the grandson of the company’s founder, took the company online 80 years after “Poppy” Sol Braverman opened a store to sell nuts, dried fruit, and other bulk foods. I was also fascinated with how the company’s customers mobilized to ship 20 tons of peanuts to CBS to save the TV show “Jericho” a few years ago.

In 1999, Jeffrey was in his dorm room at Wharton brainstorming the best URL for the company. Nuts.com, eNuts.com, NutsDirect.com, and many other domain names were already taken and NewarkNutCompany.com was too long. In the end, he decided to go with NutsOnline.com because it reminded him of America Online (his Internet provider at the time).

When it came to transition to the new, simpler, more memorable domain name, Jeffrey was aware that it was risky but, after much deliberation, decided that it was the best way to grow the company and take an offensive position in the competitive e-commerce industry. There’s not really space in customers’ minds for more than one of “that online nut company.” In fact, when Rachael Ray featured our candy favors on her show a few years ago, she directed her viewers to nuts.com, which was at the time a parked domain not actively used by its owner. Ouch. We needed to make it as easy as possible for customers to remember us and find us, and we wanted to do so before our competitors made the move. One of the most significant threats to us thriving and surviving was that a large or medium-sized e-retailer would purchase the nuts.com domain name.

We purchased the domain name last fall and, after the holiday rush, we pulled the switch on the re-branding in the second week of January.

Nuts.com's new boxes. Photo courtesy of Pentagram.

The New York Times article was correct in that traffic from Google searches dipped immediately after the transition. Other articles picked up on the story and proclaimed that our purchase of the domain name was a failure, even though organic traffic told only a small part of the story. We had expected some bumps in the road and, by May, our traffic had recovered and was back to where it had been right before the holiday rush. As of the end of July, we saw our Google organic traffic grow by 32 percent year-over-year.

More telling of the transition’s success is our direct traffic, which represents the number of people finding us by directly typing our domain into their browser’s address bar. Our direct traffic is up 105 percent over last year and, by April, our direct traffic and revenue exceeded that of December, which is amazing for a seasonal business like ours. This meant that our assumption about the new domain name and brand being more memorable was correct! And the re-branding attracted the right kind of visitor, too, as our revenues from direct traffic increased by more than 65 percent.

But the success of the rebranding was not coincidental. We did much more than just flip the switch in January. Before the rebranding, we made sure to clearly define our brand mission, values, attributes, personality, voice, and story, as well as understanding our brand’s position in the market. We also prepared our site for the technical transition, working on many nuances that could affect the site’s functionality as well as our search engine rankings and AdWords campaigns.

Both before and during the rebranding, we spent a significant amount of time thinking about customer and visitor experience. We communicated throughout to let our customers and visitors know what to expect—no changes to our products, service, or brand values other than our URL and name. We included notes about the change on our packaging, web site, emails, and newsletters. We worked with a design agency, Pentagram, to create quirky, fun, and approachable packaging for our new name. Our customers (and bloggers) raved about our new boxes, pictured above, which captured the heart of our brand. We also redirected traffic from NutsOnline to Nuts.com to make sure that our loyal customers would not get lost.

Each and every step of the way, for even the smallest change, we asked: How will this affect our customers and our visitors? Is this a reflection of our brand? If the answer to either question was negative, we passed on the change. For example, we considered whether applying for a generic top level domain (gTLD), such as .nuts, would make sense for us. We decided against it because the URL structure is not familiar to customers, and so could be confusing. We also thought that the cost to apply for the gTLD ($185,000 and $25,000 per year to maintain the URL), with no guarantee that we would be able to secure the domain, was better invested into improving our customer experience and, thus, increasing the customer lifetime value.

We did not handle the brand or our new domain name lightly. As a reward for our efforts, we received hundreds of positive comments from customers expressing their love for the company, our products, and our brand, regardless of our name. And, year-over-year, we’ve experienced significant growth in traffic (66 percent) and revenues (43 percent).

Many critics told us that spending for a generic domain name was a recipe for failure, citing examples such as books.com, shoes.com, and pets.com. However, the success of a company and a brand is not determined quite so unilaterally. Several generically-domained companies we’ve seen struggle have suffered at the hands of competitors that were not necessarily better named, but that had inherent strengths in customer service, operations, and, as a result, brand loyalty. What would Amazon be without its logistic and meticulous attention to on-site experience (1-click ordering, anyone)? Or what would Zappos be without its trademark commitment to customer service? And, while Pets.com didn’t sell actual pets and was perhaps a bit of a misnomer, that was the least of its many operational problems.

For us, purchasing the nuts.com domain name and re-branding to Nuts.com was definitely the right decision. The revenue increases we’ve seen since the transition have definitely already been worth the price of admission. Our brand is more than just our domain name; our company identity and our commitment to customer service have been carefully and thoughtfully cultivated for more than eight decades. And this has been our secret to a successful rebranding.

Anne Swift is the Head of Marketing (a.k.a. Chief Marketing Nut) at Nuts.com and a Director of the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. She is also the founder of Young Inventors International, which has helped thousands of university innovators around the world through online and offline events. Follow @anneswift

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