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Dot-Com or Not-com? Branding Backlash Hits Start-Ups

Multex.com did it. So did MapQuest.com. Just a few months before filing for an initial public offering, both firms changed their names, adding what was then thought to be a necessary accouterment -- the dot-com.

But now, in an environment in which dot-com is becoming synonymous with flash-in-the-pan companies running sometimes-offensive television advertising, Internet start-ups are beginning to reconsider whether dropping the dot-com might help them distinguish themselves.

"When you hear all of these dot-com names on the radio, you come away thinking 'what was the company?'" says Bryan Thatcher, president and CEO of Fusebox, an interactive agency that recently changed its name from 12 Point Rule. "The dot-com becomes such a punctuation, and much more powerful than what came before it."

Another factor here is the widely-held idea that the best and most memorable brand names are short -- two to three syllables -- and just having the dot-com wastes valuable space in potential customers' brains. It weighs down the name, some think, making it more difficult to remember.

Dot-com fatigue is another reason cited for ditching the label.

"It was OK in the beginning, when the Web was brand new," said Steve Manning, managing director of naming consultancy A Hundred Monkeys, "but now people are sick of hearing it."

Of course, the dot-com moniker first came into vogue as a way of indicating how people could find the company -- online. But now that the general population is more Web-savvy, that pointer may not be necessary.

"It's as silly as if, when malls swept the country back in the seventies, everyone had gone around adding "m" to their name," says Manning. "It's just an address. There are other ways to convey where you are."

Both Manning and Thatcher are advising clients to avoid the dot-com, assuring them that there's no compelling reason for having it. Some of the most successful Internet-age brands, like America Online and Yahoo!, don't have the dot-com, they point out (although Yahoo! does have that trendy little exclamation point).

Those who eschew the dot-com believe it's got a very dated feel to it, and they predict it will soon seem old-fashioned. Now that businesses in nearly every sector are migrating online, a name that distinguishes you as an "online business" may seem unnecessary.

"It's already starting to sound hackneyed," says Athol Foden, director of the naming division at NameTrade, a part of Tollner Design Group. "If you say dot-com, you've clearly stamping yourself as the nineties. Ten years from now, the Internet will be like the fax. You either have it, or you're out of business."

The other issue that arises with taking a dot-com name is that it may place limitations on what you can do. As more Internet companies venture into offline businesses (witness AOL Time Warner), a dot-com name may be seen as a limitation.

"You want a name that expresses what you do, but you don't want it to be so specific that it limits your business," said Andrew Erlichson, co-founder of Flashbase, a start-up that began with database applications and recently expanded into doing online promotions.

There are those in the marketing business, though, that stand up for the dot-com, saying it really does mean something, especially in an environment that will soon become awash with dot-everything, as the Internet breaks down international boundaries.

"Right now dot-com means a U.S. global player on a world stage," said Drew Neisser, presi