Is the new TLD '.sucks' really blackmailing big brands?

As someone whose name also is his brand (welcome to 21st-century journalism), I watch with interest the new .sucks top-level domain, which is available for select preregistration through 29 May—the only time to surely secure your.sucks. Today, I looked to a reputable registrar to see what joewilcox.sucks would cost me. Cough, cough: $3,797.99 (£2,578.52) now, during the so-called Priority Access (e.g., Sunrise) period, or $407.98 (£276.98) when general pre-reg starts in June.

The new TLD is just one among hundreds of available or forthcoming domain extensions sanctioned by governing body ICANN. "I think the motivation behind the release of all these new domains is money," says Roger Kay, who describes the sellers as shady land speculators. "The .sucks domain is particularly nasty," the president of consultancy Endpoint Technologies Associates emphasises. "It's pretty close to blackmail". But is it really? This analysis means to help you decide.

Brand Hostages?

The early consensus among several experts is consistent, and not what I expected before starting reporting: If you're a big brand, the gun to your head is a bluff. If you're smaller, be concerned if not afraid: Pay up now, or pay more in brand equity later on.

"My sense is that the big brands won't go for it," Kay says. "They'll let the chips fall where they may". His reasoning: Larger companies can afford to wait and see whether or not .sucks, or some of the other new domain extensions, poses any image problems—and there is always the option for big brands with lots of resources to later sue someone who squats, say, applewatch.sucks.

Amit Peri agrees. "Small and medium size businesses should worry more than the big ones. Applewatch.sucks wouldn't matter much to Apple, but it could damage small businesses' reputation" As owner of the Android Newbies blog, he speaks with legitimate concerns for a smaller brand.

However, the two men's opinions contradict published news reports, that I cannot confirm, asserting many big-brand companies are paying big bucks to lock in .sucks during the Sunrise period. They also are in better position to pay up than smaller businesses.

"I would only be worrying about snapping up the .sucks TLD if my brand or customer service actually does suck so much that the .sucks will get real attention if a critic hijacks it," Mark Traphagen, senior director of Online Marketing for Stone Temple Consulting, says.

Some domains recently registered that might fit that criteria: adp.sucks; applecare.sucks; eharmony.sucks; facetime.sucks; eharmony.sucks; fios.sucks; flickr.sucks; johnhancock.sucks; klipsch.sucks; mac.sucks; rogers.sucks; seabourn.sucks; and starbucks.sucks.

Traphagen's response got me to wonder: Would his company consider obtaining its .sucks domain and for the hefty fees demanded before 1 June. "I don't believe we would be interested in buying our .sucks domain, especially at those prices," he answers.

The Price You Pay

How hefty are those fees? ICANN granted Vox Populi Registry administrative rights over .sucks. There is something seemingly stereotypical about pricing, blackmail accusations, and location—the company is based in the Cayman Islands.

"Our suggested price is $2,499 (£1696), but many registrars are offering the names in ways and at prices that are more variable," John Berard, Vox Populi CEO says. "At least one registrar is committing to registering names at $2,024 (£1374)". But he didn't offer to say which (I should have asked). The registry's complete suggested price list varies based on when you acquire a .sucks.

His response surprised, because doing my own spot price checks at several registrars, including Network Solutions, I got the aforementioned $3,800 (£2579). Something else: Buy early to secure your brand from .sucks and pay the same price—again $2,499 (£1696) Vox Populi suggested—for the renewal. That pay-it-again-for-another-year cost is more reason some companies might wait, see, and sue if need be rather than locking in the domain expense.

Could this be yours for just $3,800?

Not everyone can take advantage of the pay-more option. "Right now we are just three weeks into a 60-day sunrise period, where only brands whose marks are registered in the Trademark Clearing House are eligible to register their .sucks name", Berard tells me. That costs, too.

I count 39 registrars authorised by Vox Populi to process and manage the extension. Rebel.com is among the lower-priced options, charging $2,200 (£1493) during the Sunrise period and $230 (£156) "to go first when the domain becomes generally available".

Safenames is another, and its sales pitch resonates with Kay's "extortion" assertion—that .sucks takers purchase something they don't want for which there is manufactured need. Safenames cajoles:

Registering a .sucks domain(s) for your brand will help you control the exposure of your Intellectual Property online. Because the registry is not offering 'blocks' for .sucks, all .sucks domains will resolve, which is why you don’t want someone else registering the .sucks domain for your brand. Once you register 'yourbrand.sucks' you have complete control over this domain—where it resolves, etc. So if you are looking to protect your brand(s) in the .sucks space, registering the .sucks for your brand is your best line of defense.

Changing Landscape

"All this is a multi-dimensional expansion of the brand space", Kay says about the new TLDs. "Companies have to decide what they want to do about all this new real estate", and what he describes as the "land grab" around it.

Social media consultant David Amerland agrees:

In many ways this is part of the transition where branding, marketing, social network chatter, and search come together in the increasingly transparent dataspace companies find themselves in. There are some constraints regarding the purchase of .sucks domains which are intended to safeguard companies against abuse so the big question is 'should they really worry?'

Amerland asserts that "traditional marketing departments will worry about watering down of brand values", while others "are confident in their company's social media credentials". The former is more likely to justify the "logic behind paying the cost to register it as a domain name". The others are less likely to grab .sucks.

Illicit Behavior

I wonder about .sucks uptake, whether big brands will bite, or they won't as some experts believe. "I can't gauge demand, not, at least, until we enter general availability of the names", Berard answers. "That begins on or about 1 June. We have miles to go".

But there are complaints about pricing, enough to bring ICANN begging Canadian and US consumer protection agencies for assistance. In a letter sent last week, the organisation complained of "predatory, exploitive, and coercive" business practices by Vox Populi. More:

ICANN, through its registry agreement, may seek remedies against Vox Populi if the registry's actions are determined to be illegal. ICANN is concerned about the contentions of illicit actions being expressed, but notes that ICANN has limited expertise or authority to determine the legality of Vox Populi's positions, which we believe would fall within your representative regulatory regimes.

My question: What good is ICANN if it can't act on its own behalf?

Lost Irony

In beginning research for this story and contacting Vox Populi, I started at the company's Media page. I am surprised that the registry allows so many negative news stories and tweets to appear. I tell the CEO that it strikes me as ironic and ask: "Given you are responsible for .sucks, is that deliberate or coincidental? Because the Media page could almost be an advertisement for why companies should protect their brands by registering the .sucks extension".

"Not ironic at all", he responds. "It is in keeping with our intent for the registry to cultivate that clean, well-lighted place for criticism in an attempt to better collaborate. I think companies not already engaged in cultivating such a customer relationship could benefit from building a .sucks site, but it is by no means mandatory".

The .sucks Media page is news that sucks.

Amerland expresses similar enough sentiment that I begin to wonder if there is legitimate, rather than brand defensive, use for your.sucks. "If companies actually do set up domain names where grievances can be aired it may turn out to be a real win by providing a centralised forum where companies can actually use real feedback to improve their services and establish a conversation with those who are adversely affected".

New World Order

So What? Applewatch.sucks should be the branded, official website for complaints? If you strip back complaints about predatory pricing and blackmail branding tactics, Vox Populi's .sucks sales pitch is all about customer engagement, but, honestly, in ways many companies aren't accustomed to or for which marketers are more likely to chill rather than warmly embrace. The company proposes:

By building an easy-to-locate, 'central town square' available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, .sucks is designed to help consumers find their voices and allow companies to find the value in criticism. Each .sucks domain has the potential to become an essential part of every organisation’s customer relationship management program.

I can buy the approach. But I must ask: Why do companies have to pay so much for the privilege of setting up such sucks sites or for hefty renewal fees to keep them? You tell me.

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