A MARKETER whose sexy advertising polarized consumers for years is trying to distance itself even more from its previous provocative approach, as executives seek to strike a balance between being noticed and being castigated.
In a commercial scheduled to begin running on Thursday, GoDaddy, the Internet services company, will recast itself as a helpmate to small-business owners by adopting a new theme for its advertising, “It’s go time.” The commercial, by Deutsch New York, part of the Deutsch division of the Interpublic Group of Companies, features the action movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme playfully embodying the new GoDaddy brand personality by enabling entrepreneurs to meet whatever challenges they face.
In interviews and news releases, GoDaddy executives are describing the new brand personality with phrases like the one a family newspaper would paraphrase as “enabling our customers to kick tail.” But the sassy unparaphrased version is missing from the commercial, which will appear on godaddy.com as well as on television, initially during the NBC coverage of the first game of the N.F.L.’s 2013-14 season.
The changes in GoDaddy’s approach arrive as marketers and consumers debate how far is too far when it comes to language and imagery in mainstream ads. The original GoDaddy brand personality was characterized by buxom, scantily clad women called “GoDaddy Girls”; ad copy replete with double entendres, many delivered by the racecar driver Danica Patrick; and online commercials that were racier than the eyebrow-raising television versions. Bob Parsons, the founder of GoDaddy who was then its chief executive, originated and reveled in those tactics for what he called “GoDaddy-esque” ads.
Warren Adelman, who took over from Mr. Parsons when GoDaddy came under new ownership in 2011, ended that approach in favor of a tack focused on products and services. In June 2012 he hired Deutsch New York, the company’s first outside agency, which a month later brought out a commercial that paired the sexy side of GoDaddy with a smart, technically proficient side. The “smart meets sexy” idea was reiterated in a spot that ran in February during Super Bowl XLVII, which drew attention for a long kiss between the model Bar Refaeli and a nerdy actor, Jesse Heiman. By that time, GoDaddy had another chief executive, Blake Irving, who was even more determined to put the “GoDaddy-esque” ads in the past.
“We got a lot of attention — we were edgy, funny,” Mr. Irving said in a phone interview, referring to the original brand personality. “We were also on the edge of inappropriate.”
That affected GoDaddy’s dealings with the online marketplace Etsy, he said, which “has a contingent of women business owners,” adding that executives at Etsy told him they were “getting so much pressure” for doing business with GoDaddy.
There is another way to advertise, Mr. Irving said, that “doesn’t have to push customers away: still edgy, still fun, still entertaining, still irreverent” but “talking in a more grown-up way, doing things that are hilarious, memorable and don’t polarize.”
The Van Damme campaign is “meme-able,” he added — that is, likely to generate positive attention through being shared by consumers in social media.
In the commercial, a baker who needs dough sees on his PC that his business, Ben’s Bread Box, has 25 new orders to fill. Suddenly, Mr. Van Damme appears in the kitchen, not as an actor but as a one-man band, playing a peppy tune, performing some of his trademark splits and declaring, “It’s go time.” Motivated, the baker completes kneading the dough for all the orders. On screen, the words “More business. More ready. It’s go time” appear as Mr. Van Damme whispers: “It’s go time. GoDaddy.”
Greg DiNoto, partner and chief creative officer at Deutsch New York, said: “We wanted an inspiring line that sounded consistent with the GoDaddy brand. ‘It’s go time’ says we support small-business owners, helping them get ready to do battle, ready to step up. Jean-Claude Van Damme is representative of the spirit of this go-getter target audience; he winkingly says, ‘Let’s do business, let’s kill it.’ ”
For all the consumers who were turned off by the “GoDaddy-esque” ads, there were many hard-core fans who delighted in them. “Those folks who loved GoDaddy in the past and are small-business owners will feel even more understood by GoDaddy,” Mr. DiNoto said. “They’ll think, ‘Now GoDaddy is really bringing it, with substantive tools.’ ”
On the other side of the coin, “whatever we’ve lost in ‘sexy’ we hope we’ve gained in smart and substantial,” he added.
Competitors are watching whether GoDaddy can walk the line between keeping its fans and changing minds among critics. For instance, Anthony Casalena, chief executive of the New York-based hosting service Squarespace, said: “Companies have a DNA. It’s difficult to say you’re different from the way you were the past 10 years. That’s a challenge for them.”
Mr. Casalena described Squarespace — which recently introduced a low-key campaign, on television and online, that was created internally — as a company that didn’t need to reset its image.
“The image you put online is important,” he said. “We want to create a platform where designers and art directors, people serious about image and branding, align with us.”
Barb Rechterman, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at GoDaddy, said the new campaign would benefit from a decision to “move some advertising dollars forward” into the fourth quarter from next year.
In the first quarter of 2013, the most recent period for which data were available, GoDaddy spent $11.6 million to advertise in major media, the Kantar Media unit of WPP reported; ad spending totaled $34.6 million last year, $35 million in 2011, $31.4 million in 2010 and $22.3 million in 2009.