Yahoo's quest for respect

A new $100 million marketing campaign will emphasize that Yahoo has a personal touch as the company tries to balance its need to start anew while showing off its strengths.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read

Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz is already tired of cynicism about the company, but understands that the business world still looks at Yahoo with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Yahoo introduced a new $100 million global ad campaign Tuesday in New York at the IAB's MIXX conference, centered on the marketing-friendly ideas of personalization and empowerment. Expect to see a blitz of Yahoo ads starting Monday emphasizing that "It's You" when it comes to finding what you want on the Internet, and especially at Yahoo.

Most of Chief Marketing Officer Elisa Steele's presentation, before those in town for Advertising Week and streamed live online, was constructed to emphasize that Yahoo cares about its users, with the reasonable presumption that advertisers will care about a company that can attract hundreds of millions of those users. Yahoo is already an Internet monster: the second largest property on the Web behind Google with 581 million visitors a month and 70 percent of the U.S. Internet population stopping by on a regular basis.

But Yahoo's campaign is really about more than that. It's also about making a break from the past vision of Yahoo as an out-of-control company that really didn't know what it wanted to be when it grew up.

This was clear in a question-and-answer session following Steele's presentation when Bartz alternatively blasted the "cynicism" that seems to follow Yahoo everywhere but acknowledged that the company has something to prove.

"Why are you cynical about us?" Bartz asked rhetorically in response to a question about whether too much emphasis is placed on the need for Yahoo to develop new strategies. "Why don't you get cynical about fricking Google? If you don't like us just leave us alone."

Of course, investors and the media are cynical about Yahoo because this is a company that presses the reset button on a regular basis. Over the past several years with CEOs like Terry Semel and Jerry Yang in charge, Yahoo has reinvented itself so many times that another CEO making another promise about another strategy tends to ring hollow.

Later in the press conference, Bartz softened her tone in response to a question about Yahoo's languishing stock price. "I think investors are like you guys (the media), saying 'let's wait and see.' We know it's our job to impress the press and investors, all of you are part of this world we live in."

Yahoo's stock (in red) has languished against rival Google and the broader Nasdaq market. Yahoo Finance

Still, this IS a different Yahoo. There is new blood throughout the top ranks of the company and they would prefer to not be judged on the dysfunction that was there when they arrived. Instead, they want to focus on the positives, such as Yahoo's immense audience, its advantage in the display advertising market, and its quirky sense of its own self.

The new campaign will try to highlight all of those strengths, reminding people that they can find nearly anything they want on Yahoo and interact with the huge number of people who have a Yahoo account. New search features discussed a few weeks back are also now open to all Yahoo visitors. "We want to show them what the new Yahoo is all about," Bartz said. Tapan Bhat, senior vice president of integrated consumer experiences, added that this emphasis on personalization is really a new product development strategy that is being presented by the "It's You" campaign.

Which, of course, brings it back to the question that set Bartz off. Yahoo seems to want it both ways: to be seen as an already strong business on its own merits, and to be seen as a company in the midst of reinvention.

Will it work? Ad campaigns are unlikely to drive huge traffic growth for a collection of Web sites that is already so big, but Yahoo wants to emphasize to both consumers and advertisers that it is a destination site. "There's not a major event in the world where we don't break every Internet record" for traffic, Bartz said, and for Yahoo to grow that can't change.

While Yahoo shores up its image, Bartz can focus on the more unpleasant task of deciding what needs to disappear at Yahoo to keep the cost side of the equation down. She declined to comment on reports about a possible sale of Zimbra, but said Yahoo is evaluating much of its business and will make decisions about what to sell and what to shut down.

One year ago Yahoo was an exhausted company, following the breakdown of talks with Microsoft over a possible merger and a very public fight with activist investor Carl Icahn. Bartz's arrival in January has brought more change, with the company's deal to outsource search to Microsoft and yet another reorganization.

"I think what happened with Yahoo is people put a cloud over its head, and the company kind of put a cloud over its head," Bartz said. At the same time, she feels that the majority of its users outside Silicon Valley or New York are delighted with the company's services and enjoy spending time on Yahoo.

This is part of what still makes Yahoo a difficult company to understand: if the media is too cynical about Yahoo needing to change, and users outside the digerati love the services, why did Yahoo revamp its home page and will now spend $100 million on consumer advertising to emphasize a "new" product development strategy?