When I look at the shape, I see a heart. Maybe a heart with a lopsided smile.
Aman Bhutani sees something different: “A young girl who’s a little bit of a bandit—with a ponytail and a patch over her eye—who wants to grow up and be somebody.”
The Rorschach test we’re studying together is GoDaddy’s new logomark, the Go. Bhutani is CEO of the web-services company, so his interpretation matters. Still, he clearly means it more as a playful possibility than the definitive word on the subject.
GoDaddy’s customers and potential customers are unlikely to spend much time trying to suss out the deeper meaning of the Go, which, on the most straightforward level, consists of an overlapping, angled, oval-shaped “G” and “O.” It sits squarely in the territory of recent streamlined, curvy expressions of corporate values such as Airbnb’s Bélo, which itself evokes an (upside-down) heart. But GoDaddy has a strong sense of the emotion it’s trying to evoke with the shape, which is a joint effort between its own design team and two outside branding firms, Lippincott and Koto.
“It represents the entrepreneurial spirit,” explains GoDaddy chief brand officer Cameron Scott. “All of our customers have an idea, and they all have initiative. We are there to say, ‘We’re here with you for your first step. We’re here with you for your next step. And we’ve got your back every step of the way.'”
The introduction of the Go is less the dawn of a new era for GoDaddy than a finishing touch on a brand evolution it’s been going through for years. The company, which was founded in 1997, grew huge by mass-marketing domain names, web hosting, and related services. (It currently has 77 million domains under registration—more than 20% of the world’s total.) Along the way, it established an exuberantly wacky personality and became best known for manufacturing controversy through raunchy Super Bowl ads.
After being acquired by a trio of private-equity firms in 2011—and then going public—a new, more button-downed GoDaddy shed the excess of its old brand as it launched more sophisticated services and increasingly expanded internationally. But it didn’t consistently replace it with anything else. At best, it came off as trying to to be mildly quirky without offending anyone; at worst, it was just plain anodyne.
By 2018, the last remnant of GoDaddy’s legacy brand was its aggressively zany original logomark, a head with a grin, green shades, a yellow star over one ear, and orange waves sprouting, Mohawk-like, from the top. It was highly recognizable, says Scott, “but there wasn’t nearly as much emotional attachment to the head as I would’ve liked, for how long that we’d had it.” That year, GoDaddy removed the head from its home page, which wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence in its future.
More significantly, GoDaddy got serious about communicating what it was in a way that would help it stand out in a crowded field. (The company competes with small-business web-hosting sites such as Wix and Squarespace, and, increasingly, with other providers of online services such as Shopify and Mailchimp.) It began doing so by emphasizing people: Both the 19 million customers who use its services and the 6,000 customer-service reps who help them do so.
By not conveying anything at all in explicit fashion, the new Go logo steps out of the way. “A mark is only as powerful as the brand itself,” says CMO Fara Howard. “The messages that we communicate, that our community communicates for us, that our products deliver, that our [reperesentatives] communicate on the phone. And so it really gets filled with who we are. This feels like a mark that is ripe to be filled.”
Extremely small businesses
To say that GoDaddy has always catered to small businesses doesn’t narrow things down that much, since everybody has a different definition of what “small business” means. In this case, it’s as small as it gets. Bhutani, who joined GoDaddy in September 2019 after close to a decade at Expedia, says he was drawn to the company because it “had cracked the code on something that’s been pretty hard to do for large companies, which is to work with a group of customers that can best be described as solopreneurs or microbusinesses.”
Many of these companies involve only one or two people; ones that have 10 employees are sizable by GoDaddy standards. They do things such as crafting jewelry, brewing beer, arranging flowers, building furniture, sewing bags, and silkscreening T-shirts.
GoDaddy came up with a name for such people: “Everyday Entrepreneurs.” Then it started spotlighting real customers in its marketing—300 of them in 2019 alone. Diverse, engaging, and passionate, they’re the stars of videos and other messaging that is as much about inspiration as hawking web services. The best known among GoDaddy’s spokespeople is Ayesha Curry, the TV host, restauranteur, and wife of NBA star Stephen Curry, whose Homemade site is hosted on GoDaddy; Scott emphasizes that even she started her company in her kitchen.
“We’re putting our customer at the center of our advertising,” says Howard. “And you can see lots of examples if you follow us on Instagram or Facebook, that we’re really working to tell their stories because we’re incredibly proud of the work that they’ve achieved.” Other web-service companies share real-people successes in their marketing, too—especially Squarespace, whose long-standing design aesthetic resembles the one GoDaddy has more recently adopted. But GoDaddy seems most heavily invested in highlighting real small businesses; by contrast, Squarespace’s current ad campaign stars “featured customer” Oscar the Grouch.
Scott calls Everyday Entrepreneurs “very smart and often very educated” but emphasizes that they are not smitten with technology for technology’s sake. “It’s not what they’re going after,” he says. “Sofia wants to cut hair. She doesn’t want to get really, really good at email marketing or social marketing.” (Sofia is GoDaddy customer Sofia Car, a Hollywoood-based hairstylist, one of at least three hairstylists who have been featured in the company’s marketing.)
Enter those 6,000 customer-service representatives (counting both staffers and those employed by outside firms), who are located in 22 centers from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Belfast, Ireland, to Hyderabad, India. When customers call with questions about GoDaddy’s products, according to Bhutani, they become happier, more loyal clients who are more likely to pay for even more services. “The data is super clear,” he says. “Customers that engage with us more not only give us more value, they get more value from us.” This may be why the company shares its phone number liberally on its website—a refreshing change from most big-company sites, which typically try to placate customers with questions by shunting them off to canned answers and community forums.
Just as GoDaddy branded customers as “Everyday Entrepreneurs,” it began calling the reps “GoDaddy Guides” and raising their profile. The “Help” link on the home page (which had already replaced the more typical and mundane “Support”) became a “Help by GoDaddy Guides” link. Clicking it leads to the help center, which is embellished with photos of real, smiling reps identified by first name and last initial. Guides also host how-to videos with titles such as “What is an SSL certificate and why do you need one?” and “Podcasting tips for beginners.”
More than a domain name
For all of GoDaddy’s new emphasis on the inspirational side of entrepreneurship, its customers are still paying it for web services. When the company was busy getting big, it was an accomplishment for a small business to have any sort of online presence at all. Today, however, even the tiniest of companies want more than a domain name and a home page. They want something with big-company slickness that potential customers will actually find. They might want to sell goods, on or off their own site. And they’d certainly like to establish themselves on social networks.
In 2015, when I wrote about GoDaddy in a previous story, it was working on modernizing its portfolio of offerings—some of which had grown as creaky as its original wild-and-crazy persona. Today, says Bhutani, “I’d say we now have a very competitive offering across all of our customer segments. But the journey is never done, because the needs of the customers keep evolving, and we want to keep pressing against that opportunity.”
Bhutani points to the success of GoDaddy’s Websites + Marketing (formerly known as GoCentral) as a sign that the company is keeping up with the current needs and expectations of small businesses. The package includes a website builder with 100 templates as well as tools for SEO, social-media management, selling products on sites such as Amazon and Etsy, and more; GoDaddy says that a million customers have signed up for it, and that users see an average 18% revenue increase in the first year.
The last chunk of my time at GoDaddy’s Silicon Valley office is devoted a walk-through of Websites + Marketing by senior director of product management Heidi Gibson. Templated tools that speed non-techies through the process of building a site in just a few clicks predate even GoDaddy’s founding, but Gibson emphasizes that the service is trying to give small businesses something more holistic and valuable. “We try to meet them with where they’re at and lead them through the process of building not just a website—which might not even be necessary—but their whole online presence, coaching them through the process of effectively driving traffic to where they need it to meet their goals,” she says.
By this point, I’m not shocked when part of her demo involves a real GoDaddy customer I’m already familiar with: The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, a San Francisco restaurant up the street from my office. But it is startling when Gibson explains that it’s her own business, which she cofounded in 2009 and has operated in parallel with her career in the tech industry.
When Gibson interviewed at GoDaddy in 2016, she was concerned the company would frown on her eatery as a conflict of interest. Instead, she says, the response was “That’s awesome! Can you cater lunch? We like cheese!” The company looks at side hustles as a powerful way for staffers to understand the challenges of GoDaddy customers. And so it has a formal program, Entrepreneurs in Tech, which encourages them to operate their own businesses by offering everything from workshops to discounts on GoDaddy services.
Once a business has created an image for itself, it can be hard to shake. (When I told my wife I was going to visit GoDaddy, she immediately asked if I’d get to meet Danica Patrick, the NASCAR and IndyCar driver and one-time star of racy GoDaddy TV ads who made a toned-down comeback in 2018 but is not currently a spokesperson.) Still, GoDaddy seems committed to its new, more humane branding. And unlike the company’s original attention-grabbing tactics, it’s not a gimmick that will inevitably run its course.
“When you have 19 million customers, there’s a limitless amount of people whose stories you can tell,” says Howard.