What's in a name? With growth, digital publishers face tough branding questions

New digital media companies inevitably will face the need to scale an audience, but the logistics are complicated. Among the questions they have to figure out as they branch out to new verticals is how to brand themselves. Do they take their parent name and extend it to new coverage areas, a là The Huffington Post or BuzzFeed? Or do they start an entirely new brand name, as Bustle did, with its new parenting site, Romper?

The stakes are big. Publishers who make the wrong call risk losing untold resources on ventures that fail to gain credibility with readers and don’t attract advertisers. And the experience of one site isn’t necessarily instructive for another, say publishers who have wrestled with this issue.

Bustle already covers news, entertainment, fashion, beauty and books for its millennial female target audience. But when it moved into the parenting arena last year with Romper, Bustle decided that the topic was distinctive enough that it should have its own brand, Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg said.

“To me, it’s about: Are you entering a category where your existing brand has authority?” Goldberg said. “I can’t give a specific answer. But when you think about The Huffington Post, you think about news and politics and maybe a little bit of pop culture, but I don’t think sports is something that immediately comes to mind.”

The Huffington Post, for its part, thinks its strategy has worked well for it; it does more than 100 million monthly uniques in the U.S. and more than 190 million globally, for one. A spokesperson there emailed over a statement, saying, “the Huffington Post is one of the largest, most recognizable media brands on the planet thanks in part to our commitment to extending the HuffPost name and values to all of our verticals and international editions. And we’ve been able to cultivate deeply engaged, loyal communities by extending that trust and credibility to our various sections (i.e.: HuffPost Parents, HuffPost Black Voices, HuffPost Queer Voices, HuffPost Women, HuffPost/50, HuffPost Teen, HuffPost Divorce, etc.)”

Vox Media, with eight verticals includes SB Nation, The Verge and Vox.com, has taken a much different route from the Post in building itself around the credo of the individual brand site. They believe that by buying or building standalone brands with passionate followings they can scale an audience without watering it down.

Vox Media editorial director Lockhart Steele (who sold Vox Media three of its verticals, Curbed, Eater and Racked) said the individual brand model is one of the company’s key points of differentiation.

“Some big tech sites like Mashable started out as social and as they grew, it became tricky to look at Mashable and know what exactly are they delivering,” he said. “Eater sounds more authoritative than, ‘I heard about it on Huffington Post-slash-food. I understand why some started doing that — they need scale — but as they pivoted to be everything to everybody, I think they sacrifice authority.”

How much the company strays from the parent brand ultimately comes down to what role the parent brand will play in relation to the purpose of the new vertical, said Rick Roth, CEO and founder of Roth Partners, a brand consulting firm.

“If something’s being created to pursue a new market, sometimes the parent brand will help and sometimes it will hurt it,” Roth said. “It may be really good to have the parent brand attached to it. But it could hold back the growth of the new entity if it’s seen as dusty.”

The branding decision facing publishers is complicated by the rise of mobile consumption and distributed media. People increasingly come upon the news on tiny screens and in their social feeds, where there are constraints on logo size and design elements, which could make it hard for a new brand to gain traction. Creating a new brand in a distributed age also means having to make sure you can not only get the rights to the url but the Facebook and Twitter handles. That could be an argument for sticking with an already-recognized name when creating a new vertical.

“It can make it take longer to establish a brand,” Goldberg said. “The small screen means smaller logos; it means readers have to know you based on the nature of your content, not just a logo. They have to engage with their 10th or 15th article to realize, this is a Bustle story.”

But stretching the mother brand name too far isn’t necessarily the answer, either. “If you’re a bigger umbrella brand, there’s no promise — it could be done by anybody,” Steele said. “You read a politics story, and it’s like, well, ‘Which brand did that?’”

With all that comes into play — the subject matter, the parent brand’s identity, the business goals — there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Take The Atlantic, which hast taken both approaches. It learned that with The Wire, its standalone news site that it folded back into The Atlantic in 2014 after it failed to generate enough revenue as a standalone site. The Wire just wasn’t getting the scale it needed to compete as a news site, and having it separate put it in competition with the Atlantic.

On the other hand, spinning off CityLab as a vertical proved to be the right move because it enabled the Atlantic to turn it into a franchise, complete with events and a Univision partnership, said Bob Cohn, president and chief operating officer of The Atlantic.

New York magazine, which has a variety of digital online destinations, has been down the naming road a few times. Ben Williams, the magazine’s digital editor, said the parent brand’s name factored into the naming decision of sites like Grub Street and Vulture. Online, New York reaches a more national audience than its print counterpart.

With Grub Street, he said, “We wanted to say, ‘This is about food,’” he said. “The other reason is, New York and local is still important to us, but on the Internet, you can have people all over the country reading you.”