November 9, 2012

Right now there are a total of only 22 top level domains, including the three most well-known: .com, .net, and org. In June 2012, however, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—the quasi-governmental body responsible for administration of the domain name space—revealed applications for 1930 new ones. Six hundred fifty of these 1930 applications—roughly one-third of the total—were for top level domains corresponding to brands. The following major automotive OEMs filed applications for branded top level domains:

Click here to view list.

Note: Not all auto companies are taking part in this effort. Acura, Mercedes, Porsche, Scion, Subaru and Volkswagen did not file applications. However, Nissan filed an application for .datsun, a brand put to rest in the United States more than 25 years ago. Meanwhile, luxury automobile brands Bugatti and Bentley have also applied for their respective top level domains.

Is it any real surprise the auto industry has embraced new top level domains? Probably not. The cost for an auto manufacturer to control a branded top level domain name is estimated at $1 million for the first year; thus, the financial investment for automotive giants is relatively small. Given the significant number of car enthusiasts, auto companies should be able to devise very creative Internet marketing strategies  that involve their new top level domains.

Among the 1900+ top level domain name applications are four competing applications to register the generic top level domain “.auto”. The applicants for .auto are Uniregistry, Donuts Inc., Fegistry and Dot Auto Inc., all non-endemic to the automotive industry. Donuts and  Uniregistry—along with another company, DerCars LLC—also plan to battle it out for .cars. Google is the only company to have applied for the .car top level domain. One wonders what Google has up its sleeve.

It may be years before automotive companies who refrained from filing applications for a branded top level domain name will have a shot at it again. Right now ICANN’s focus is on evaluating the applications submitted for technical and financial sufficiency as well as proof of concept. ICANN currently is in the middle of a seven-month objection period which is set to expire in January 2013. Thereafter, the objections will be decided in the ensuing five months and then the new top level domains will be delegated. As a result, beginning as early as late Spring 2013, OEMs who control branded top level domains will be able to do with them as they please. Some may offer domain names to customers (e.g., ericfingerhut.customer.toyota); others may use them for internal business purposes (employeename.humanresources.toyota). Undoubtedly, marketing gurus are hard at work right now trying to figure how best to use those new top level domains as soon as they are delegated.

Brand owners in all industries are rightfully concerned about potential misuse of the new top level domains. ICANN has put procedures in place to ensure companies can object to the issuance of new top level domains. In addition, ICANN has assured brand owners that all second level domains registered in the new top level domains will be subject to the same rights protection mechanisms which currently exist for .com and the other 21 top level domain names. Brand owners also will have the opportunity to register their brands with a trademark clearing house to ensure those registering domain names in the new top level domains do not issue second level domains which conflict with registered trademarks. 

The new top level domains present a lot of “what ifs.” But they also present all companies, especially automotive companies, incredible marketing opportunities. Marketing and legal departments will likely follow developments very closely, especially once the new top level domains are delegated, to ensure they are keeping pace with competitors in this new Internet landscape.