Where Are All the Great Online Betting Brands?

19 January 2005

While in London attending the eGaming Review Magazine "Power 25" Summit last September, I had an end-of-the week meeting with eGaming's editor, Alun Bowden. During our conversation I made the statement that other than Bodog.com, there were no mainstream-style entertainment brands being developed in the North America-facing online gaming industry. I have been saying this for a while, so anyone who knows me has probably heard this before, but what do I really mean when I say this and why do I believe this?

Anyone who reads my articles (archived at www.calvinayre.com) will have already read last year's article on "Branding in the Online Sports Betting World." At that time, we were significantly more focused on sports betting, but were already building a mainstream-style transportable brand. The point is that to have a valuable brand, that brand must stand for something, and if it has the right values associated with it, the brand can then be moved to other lines of business, and as long as the values are maintained, you should be successful relatively quickly in the new channel.

The evidence of this was out there for the entire world to see when we launched Bodog.com Poker in September 2004. We were the first company to have our name on Pokerpulse.com's poker room ranking system from the day we went live, and in the first two months went from the bottom of the list to the middle of the pack--making us the fastest growing online poker room in the world--and most of our poker marketing programs have not even started yet.

What most of our competitors on the sports side did--and what we see happening on the poker side--is that none of them are using a real-world consumer branding strategy. It's like they believe the old rules of business do not apply on the Internet. This was exactly the thinking that has been disproved already with the Internet stock market bubble of the late 1990s. What I am arguing in this article--and what I think Bodog.com has proven--is that business principles of the old bricks-and-mortar world can not be entirely ignored in the new age of e-commerce. Sure there will be differences, but the trick is to implement the differences when you identify them while also carrying across the proven real-world strategies that are "channel agnostic."

Branding, I believe, is one area that is clearly not affected by the channel you communicate with your customers through or the channel you deliver your product or services through. I think the online branding professionals who ignore the lessons of those old-world brand masters (Coca Cola and Nike in the Americas and Virgin in Europe) will never be able to compete over the long run with companies like Bodog.com.

Some of our competitors may not have thought of branding strategy at all in setting up their business models, but I suspect what has happened to most is that they were all recent startups, and they focused on short-term player acquisition. Since we are talking Internet, what this usually meant was choosing names that were in essence just generic industry search terms that were designed to make them show up well in the search engines. Basically, if we study the Americas, the branding strategies fall into a few camps.

The first category includes all of the older sports books that started out as phone-in-only shops. Most of these have names that do not cut over to the Net at all but only one of the majors in this field has even bothered to rename itself to work better on the Net. Most do not even own the domains that corresponds to their names, so they are forced to have names and domains that don't match. The one that did choose to rename, followed the model of the next category of pure Internet startups and went for a generic, search engine-friendly name.

The second category, as alluded to above, includes nearly all of the newer sports books and poker rooms, as well as most of the online casinos, and includes the generic keyword-intensive names. This strategy is usually further watered down by each organization thinking it's better to have more than one site up with more than one name. In the real world, if we were talking about a brewery, this would be like having multiple product lines that are essentially the same, but have such captivatingly interesting names such as "beer-beer," "beer-dark-beer" and "strong-beer." It's not an accident that I choose this example, in the late 1970s there were actually a few breweries that experimented with this branding strategy, one of them was actually called "Beer Beer." None of these lines are on the market anymore in the areas I used to see them.

Let's discuss the problems with each of these strategies from a brand-building perspective. It's hard enough getting mind share in a cluttered world without a consistent message that is repeated over and over again. This means that you need a good product associated with the right image and with one easy-to-remember name. By definition, this means that your company name and your domain name have to be the same.

Additionally, though it is important to have search-friendly sites, you can have this while still having a distinct and memorable name like we have with "Bodog.com." And you need to cut back to only one name so that you can focus all your resources and all your "target markets" thinking time on embedding your brand into the top of their consciousness. This also means the same name across all countries as well as only one name per country. A serious obstacle to brand building is the name choices of our competitors. Almost all of them have chosen names that have no soul, and they are very hard to make lovable.

Most of these same issues are also a problem with companies facing Europe and Asia, but with some differences also. For instance, in Europe we have old, established land-based that are now going online. The other obvious differences are language, culture and legal differences in these areas.

Let me give you an example of what our "unique in our industry" branding strategy has done for us. One of our most respected competitors, which is public in the United Kingdom, was doing a tour of New York-based broker dealers promoting itself. One of the questions they asked the broker dealers was, "Tell us who the top online sports books in the world are." Forty-eight out of 50 of the broker dealers named Bodog.com first, even though we are not a public company and would not, therefore, be sending out press releases and such to them or be covered by any of the other news sources they monitor.

I am not going to go into any detail on the thousands of other things Bodog.com does to build what we believe is the leading (and only) entertainment brand built from scratch in online gaming, but I can tell you that we do have our name trademarked. Why is this? Because a strategy like the one we are pursuing has made Bodog.com into an online gaming key word that we control and own. Though we are flattered every time we see someone pretending to be us, we have to be able to control the use of our name to maintain our brand standards. By trademarking our name, we have easily enforceable rights to the use of our brand with domain registries and search engines. We typically ask for compliance when anyone is camping on our brand and to date we have negotiated a solution with everyone, but it's still nice to know we can enforce our interests unilaterally if we had to. Contrast this with the fact that most of our competitor's names are so generic that they could not even trademark them and you start to see the power of what we are building.

One of the other things we do more than anyone in the industry is what I call "intra-industry branding." The best example of this might be this very article you are reading, where I let the industry know some of what we are thinking, but it also extends to things like sponsoring industry-leading conferences (www.bodogconference.com). I heard some of my competitors saying last year that it was a waste of time and money to sponsor conferences like this since we would never get any players directly from it, but this entirely misses the point of the exercise. There is an old saying that no man is an island. . . . Well, the same applies to companies, and the best branded companies inside the industry also gain advantages in all the necessary relationships that are needed to function in an industry.

I still chuckle when I think back on the amount of jokes we used to hear about our name when we first came out. To have some of these same guys now investing considerable resources pretending to be us is indeed a very satisfying judgment being passed on the wisdom of our model. This also proves once again that although going against conventional thinking may not always be right, it is usually necessary if you want to take a short cut in business. What I do know is that in Bodog.com we have a brand that we can take into any other product channel or industry we want, just like our mentor Richard Branson does with Virgin. In fact he has just recently decided to come into online gaming. Now there are two exciting entertainment brands in our industry and we could not be happier than to share this spot with a great old world brand like Virgin!

For more articles by Calvin Ayre go to www.calvinayre.com.

One of the pioneers of online gaming, Mr. Ayre founded a software company in 1994 that eventually became BoDog.com Sportsbook & Casino. During this time, the BoDog.com Group of Companies has been responsible for many industry innovations in technology, marketing and business models. Calvin Ayre has a Bachelor's Degree in General Sciences and an MBA in Management Finance.