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America Online redesigned its logo and itself

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When I was just a young boy first discovering the magic of the Internet (and it is truly magical), America Online was the portal to the significantly smaller Net of a decade ago. America Online was my e-mail, my instant messenger, my chat rooms, my browser. America Online was a multitude of CDs packaged with everything imaginable. Free CDs lined racks for free, and America Online direct-mailed advertisements for 100 or 500 or 700 or 1045(!) hours of free access to the Internet. America Online was the way I would clog the phone line every night over our 56K modem as I browsed and chatted and explored what would become my very digital future.

But, looking back, this all seems a bit nostalgic. America Online succeeded in being everything for some 30 million subscribers, but some combination of the rise of broadband, bad customer service, obnoxious lock-ins, and over-advertising — and the purchase of Time Warner — brought the company down from its heights. After America Online’s $165 billion acquisition/semi-merger with the media company, the last decade seems to have spelled out a mess of indecisions over what the then-renamed AOL was really doing. Capitalizing on Time Warner’s access to traditional media didn’t seem to ever happen; subscribers started leaving and continued to leave with every new year. AOL attempted to fight Yahoo! — which we now know has its own downhill battle to fight. It seemed without those free Internet-hour CDs filling our inboxes, both America and AOL had lost sight of who AOL really was.

And when a company has lost sight of who it is, that is the time for an exercise in rebranding.

So, at the end of 2009, as AOL cleaved itself from Time Warner, it brought in Wolff Olins — the company that designed the Sony Ericsson hollow tech-sphere, the Product Red parentheses, and the London 2012 hypercolor tangram. AOL was rebranded as Aol. (period included) in a very nondescript sans-serif in white. The logo is set on various backgrounds: studio-quality photographs, colorful computer-generated abstract art, scribbles ... really anything. This dynamic we-are-everything-again brand is how Aol. decided to start its next decade.

So nearly a full year out, what is the new AOL? Last week it invited (read: purchased) three new members to the family: Brizzly, a Twitter/Facebook aggregator-type platform; 5min, an instructional video-sharing site; and, most significantly, TechCrunch, one of the largest and most-read blogging networks. In TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington’s press release on the purchase, he said, “[AOL CEO] Tim Armstrong and his team have an exciting vision for the future of AOL as a global leader in creating and delivering world-class content to consumers, be it through original content creation, partnerships or acquisitions.” And this in a nutshell does seem to be the strategy of 2010 AOL. These purchases are the most recent in a long string of acquisitions that are about AOL picking up whatever content it can. AOL owns Weblogs Inc., including Engadget and Joystiq; it co-launched celebrity gossip haven TMZ.com; and up until this summer it owned the not-popular-enough social network bebo.

In short, AOL wants to own the content of the Web so that it can — you guessed it — rake in the advertising dollars. Yes, like all the other cool-kid tech companies, AOL is going to bring in its revenue through advertising dollars on all the blogs you read. So AOL will continue “investing in content areas and ... adding more content brands to [its] portfolio,” with Arrington in some sort of prominent internal-content leading position. (The terms of the TechCrunch acquisitions require him to stay for three years).

Now, I have a bit of a relationship with Arrington — that is, he drives me crazy. But I think that self-indulgent, know-everything attitude might actually help AOL in its attempt to gain the attitude that it needs to compete. Arrington, if given control, has the ability to infuse the background imagery behind AOL’s new logo with some serious character and controversy. And already these purchases are drawing attention. AOL’s stock has been up this week. (People are investing in AOL in 2010!).

I have to say that I want AOL to succeed. I want more players in the online advertising space. I want a company that at least pretends to care about providing quality online content, blogs, news, gossip, and maybe someday even real journalism. I like the idea that a company can actually reinvent itself. And I love that AOL is actually partnering with artists to provide some background, some personality to their logo. AOL is showing that they are no longer a company with a brand built on billions of free CDs, but a brand built on the quality of its content.