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Commentary: Disney says GO brand a no-go, you DIG?

Disney (NYSE: DIS) changed the name of its Go.com (NYSE: GO) Internet unit and went a long way toward admitting that it isn't that easy to build a new brand online -- even when you have some of the best offline properties in the world.

Enter the Walt Disney Internet Group, which will trade under the DIG ticker Aug. 7.

The move, announced Thursday, makes a lot of sense, especially since Go.com/Disney Internet Group has focused on its core entertainment brands.

What a difference a year makes. Go.com was going to be the primary brand, and Disney plastered the Go moniker everywhere without much success. While Disney was touting Go.com, users kept flocking to ESPN.com, ABC.com and Disney.com. Disney, which created Go.com with the acquisition of Infoseek, learned what a lot of media companies are figuring out -- you can't build a Web brand from scratch.

Disney's Internet crew now focuses on its core markets -- travel, leisure and entertainment.

NBCI (Nasdaq: NBCI) is another company that has regrouped to rid itself of brands such as Snap.com and Xoom.com. Now NBCI is leveraging the power of the peacock with a uniform brand. Time Warner tried that great Pathfinder experiment only to find out its individual brands carried more weight with users.

The lesson: America Online (NYSE: AOL) and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) locked up the Web branding game a long time ago. AOL was so good at the branding game, it acquired Time Warner.

The Walt Disney Internet Group said it will kick off an advertising campaign in the current quarter, focused on ESPN.com, ABC.com and Disney.com. The multichannel campaign will be quite a switch from the days where Go.com had to be mentioned every five seconds on Disney's offline properties.

"There was nothing compelling about the Go name," said Arthur Newman, an analyst at ABN AMRO. "Aligning it all under the Disney name makes sense, but that won't bring another person to the site."

Quarterly progress

As for its third quarter, Disney's Internet group made solid progress.

The company posted a smaller-than-expected loss in its third quarter, losing $52.6 million, or 34 cents a share, on sales of $86.3 million. Wall Street was expecting a loss of 45 cents a share.

Newman said the company hit his revenue target and made good progress cutting its expenses. "The next big thing for them is the redesign of Go.com," said Newman, who reiterated his "buy" rating Thursday morning.

Officials expect to complete the redesign later this year. Page views were up a solid 18 percent sequentially, and the company said it has $30 million in advance advertising revenue booked from its enhanced TV promotions. That revenue will show up in the 2001 fiscal year.

Spencer Neumann, chief financial officer for Disney's Net unit, said the company will make a big e-commerce push in the fourth quarter. Commerce revenue increased 95 percent to $17.9 million in the quarter, driven primarily by increased sales at DisneyStore.com.

"Ongoing improvements should be apparent in December quarter results," said Newman. "Positive catalysts include relaunch of the Go.com site, new ad relationships from the upfront market, an intensive promotional campaign, holiday shopping and the impact of expense consolidation."

Time to end the tracking stock?

Let's connect the dots here: Disney tries to cash in on Net euphoria with the Go.com tracking stock. Dot-com shares unravel. Go.com becomes the Disney Internet Group after it failed to create a Yahoo killer.

What's next? Disney Internet Group will be folded back into Disney. The move would be perfectly logical. With the AOL-Time Warner merger almost official, multichannel integrated media companies make a lot of sense. Why keep Disney's Internet unit out on its own and suffering with the rest of the dot-coms?

The obvious answer is that Disney's Net unit loses tons of cash ($272.2 million, or $1.75 a share including charges). Disney doesn't want its Internet group on its books. But as Disney Internet Group pares its losses, it becomes more likely that DIG becomes folded into DIS.