AOL’s Marketing Chief Explains the Name ‘Oath’ and Why It Matters for AOL and Yahoo’s Brands

Prematurely announced, it officially launches this summer

Headshot of Marty Swant

Oath is the name AOL has chosen to house two dozen of the company’s media, business-to-business and advertising-tech properties later this summer. The newly (and prematurely) announced umbrella brand will also be the home of Yahoo’s content once it’s acquired by Verizon this spring.

In all, nearly three dozen of AOL and Yahoo’s brands will be under Oath, and an advertising campaign is planned for summer. However, a report this week by Business Insider forced AOL to announce Oath much sooner than it had planned and prompted CEO Tim Armstrong on Monday to unveil the logo and announce the hashtag #TakeTheOath.

The news comes just weeks before AOL’s presentation to advertisers at the Digital Content Newfronts, where the company will pitch marketers on programs and content it has planned for the coming year. (Yahoo is forgoing the Newfronts for the second year in a row, choosing instead to visit brands and agencies in various cities across the U.S.)

The rollout of Oath was met with plenty of jokes along with questions about how and why the name was chosen.

In an interview with Adweek, AOL chief marketing officer Allie Kline talked about how the company came up with the name and what it means for users and advertisers. The following is a condensed transcript of that conversation:

Adweek: First off, what is Oath?
Allie Kline: Think about Oath as a house of brands or a holding company of sorts for a really diverse and premium—for lack of a better term—set of both consumer media as well as business-to-business advertising and platform brands.

So why create it as an umbrella for the combined AOL and Yahoo properties?
I think right now if we’re just thinking about AOL for a second. AOL is a consumer brand—one that’s been around for 30-plus years—that has a deeply embedded and established consumer base but also a product set that is very well known by a mainstream audience. And it’s also today the corporate holding company for a brand family that spans ones from AOL to Huffington Post to TechCrunch to Makers. So it’s this massive portfolio brought under the AOL brand.

We’ve always faced confusion. When you say, “I work for AOL” or name AOL with the awareness we’re able to achieve, and we’re asked if The Huffington Post post or other brands are in that family. So we always thought like we could benefit from creating a house that might have more clarity around what’s in it. And that is something that we never felt we had to put ahead of the current business until something the size of Yahoo came along.

The notion of bringing Yahoo into the AOL brand structure simply felt like we weren’t going to do the full portfolio justice, coming together with a brand suite that will represent at full reach around 1.3 billion people. We felt like we needed a holding company that wasn’t in any way more connected to one entity than the other and in any way carrying existing or legacy perceptions about what products or brands came along with it. And we wanted a brand that I think most importantly represented what all of these brands and all of the people that work on them share, which is a set of values and a commitment to building brands that people love. That’s why we felt we needed to do it now.

So is this meant to help prevent Yahoo from seeming like the red-headed stepchild of a lot of these other media brands that already belong to AOL?
I think those [Yahoo’s] brands are so powerful that it would be impossible for them to feel like that. Do I think it is culturally important that the day Yahoo officially joins the family that we all realize how big of a change that is and that we all change together? Absolutely. Versus one company changing more than another … Yahoo’s brands are an amazingly impressive roster with a devoted consumer base, whether you’re standing consumer or B-to-B. So we never felt like they were at risk of that red-headed stepchild.

How did you come up with the name Oath?
When you look at the diversity of this set of brands itself, and you look at the one thing that connects or binds all of these assets and the people who work on these assets, it is a set of values we share. It’s the way we choose to show up in the morning. It’s being deeply committed to building brands and not just aggregating content. It’s the commitment to making a human commitment. An oath is something that only a human being can make, and it’s really, really powerful—and also one of the most long-term and profound commitments a human being can make. We wanted to be anchored by that, not just in the name but in the people who work on all of our brands. So whether you’re deeply committing to building a news brand people love or a lifestyle brand or an advertising-technology brand, that’s the DNA we want in the go-forward entity. We felt like the brand [Oath] could bring that to life every day.

The other piece of it is that we also wanted to be sure that it was something that would connect with our customers. We’ve had for a long time a human-led salesforce, and we wanted this to be something that could extend into that population of advertisers, agencies and publishers and think of a shared commitment between our advertisers and us. So when we think about deals between our account team and a big advertiser like Proctor & Gamble, that’s a really important thing we want the world to take seriously and our team to take seriously.

Some of the early reactions to Oath have been to compare it to when Gannett created Tronc. What do you think of that?
I think that what we always do with a name like Oath that was extremely bold—it’s not a made-up word; it has a real meaning; it’s a thing that nobody would ever name a media company except for us—we knew that it would require great context. And unfortunately, with 17 minutes notice, we couldn’t get the context out. So I don’t think you would have had that same experience had the leak not happened. But I do think today with the settling of Oath and the context being provided around it, there is a deep rallying within the industry and certainly in the broader community how important it is to have a values-led brand and how meaningful it is, particularly in this time in our society over any other. So I actually think that with that context, we’re seeing quite a lot more enthusiasm and excitement around a brand. I think any time you bring a brand to market, there is going to be reaction and energy, and I think we more than anything will measure ourselves against the volume of energy versus the sentiment of that energy.

That makes me wonder about the debate over fake news and news trustworthiness. Did that factor into the decision to call it Oath at all?
It’s funny. We had the name about six months ago. We don’t think the brand’s name is at all opportunistic, but it is launching at an opportunistic time. We chose it because AOL and Yahoo are 30-year-old brands. In our industry, it’s very rare to have a brand that’s been in market that long and is growing and thriving and still touching millions and billions of consumers’ lives. So we wanted a name that wouldn’t go away in five years but that could be longstanding and be another 30-year brand. And we again wanted a name that represented the brands housed in it. That’s why we came to Oath. It has the benefit of being highly relevant today, but that wasn’t the grounding principle behind our strategy.

What’s going to happen this summer as a part of the broader rollout?
I think you can expect timed with or around the Yahoo close, we’ll bring the brand fully to market. And with that, we obviously had a very comprehensive launch campaign that we will have to revaluate parts of it based on the leak, because obviously that campaign was tied to introducing the name. You’ll still obviously see some very big activations and investments in connecting with the B-to-B community, but you’ll start to see us keeping true to our oath of investing in the brands.

This news comes right ahead of the Digital Content NewFronts. How does this premature rollout affect your pitch to advertisers?
We made the decision that because it was going to be so close that rather than tell a story that would be disconnected from the master story, we would focus the audience very specifically and share quite a bit about the go-forward strategy. At the time, we weren’t planning on sharing the brand name, but obviously now I’m sure we’ll speak to that.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.