The Optics of Marissa Mayer

I recently wrote about Yahoo! and specifically its CEO’s efforts to revitalize the laggard Internet brand, a brand that started life alongside Altavista, another once-dominant Web brand whose fate Yahoo! hopes not to share (in spite of acquiring it).

The take-away of the earlier post was to draw attention to all the media attention Marissa Mayer was drawing to the company – both good and indifferent. It seemed to matter little how inconsequential the news, as along as the company generated headlines (and, in theory, increased relevance).

Some months have passed and the company continues to roll with the technology elite in staying on the media’s radar, including the meme that Yahoo! had surpassed Google in unique visits per month. Some questioned the methodology or even importance of this metric, but the trumpeted milestone did its job nonetheless.

No matter how much Yahoo! appears in the news, the company still struggles to shore up its path and place in the techonomy. Its purchase of Tumblr went a long way to reaffirm its tech cred, but three other more recent news items emanating from Sunnyvale (and New York) may make less of a contribution to Ms. Mayer’s grand makeover scheme.

Ms. Mayer photographed by Mikael Jansson for Vogue

First, Yahoo! watchers were treated to a sultry Ms. Mayer posing for the iconic September issue of Vogue magazine. I suppose there is value in this Internet brand appearing in Conde Nast’s flagship glossy, given the back-of-the-book women-oriented content Yahoo! generates each day. Still, there were those whose eyebrows were raised by the reclining CEO. CNN’s round-up was titled “CEOs Gone Wild.”

As a follow-up to this CEO fashion makeover, we soon learned of the makeover of Yahoo! graphic identity. Many hoped the logo’s exclamation point would fall by the wayside, but that punctuation mark survived the graphic redesign. USA Today’s lede:

“CEO Marissa Mayer has given Yahoo’s [sic] logo a fashion makeover and her personal stamp reflecting the Internet pioneer’s new image under her leadership.”

Not everyone was enamored with the svelte new logo. In fact, someone set up a parody Tumblr page titled “The New New Yahoo Logo.” Softpedia wrote:

“Yahoo [sic] unveiled its brand new logo today and, well, the reactions haven’t been great. No matter what Yahoo had revealed, it would have gotten some criticism. But it looks like, knowing that, Yahoo didn’t even try to come up with something good.”

We can all argue about the optics surrounding the new logo. As for me, the changes are so subtle I’m surprised it generated as much attention as it did. (Then again, this seems to be par for the course with Yahoo!) Forbes’ Rob Hof reached the same conclusion “Yahoo’s New Logo Fails To Impress – But People Are Talking About It!”

While we’re talking optics, one cannot argue about the negative optics in this last bit of [entity display=”Yahoo” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” key=”yahoo” ticker=”YHOO” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/4786″]Yahoo[/entity]! news. Huffington Post’s headline hit the nail on the head with its header:

“Marissa Mayer And Zach Bogue Buy Most Expensive House In San Francisco History”

With this personal purchase, what kind of message is Ms. Mayer sending to her rank & file employees, let alone company investors? The Atlantic recently asked “What’s Behind the Huge (and Growing) CEO-Worker Pay Gap? And could it possibly be justified?”  Isn’t it premature for her to claim victory?
Apparently, HUFFINGTON POST ERRED in its report that Ms. Mayer purchased “the most expensive home in San Francisco history” Whew! My faith is restored.  Here’s Ms Mayer’s tweet refuting it:

. @HuffingtonPost @zackbogue and I did not buy this house. Again, don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Cc @ariannahuff — marissamayer (@marissamayer) September 8, 2013

Still, CNN Money recently raised some valid questions in its piece “Yahoo Struggles to Find Its Place Online.” The writer wondered:

“Today it’s not clear what “Yahoo [sic]” means or what the company is about. In the year since Marissa Mayer became the company’s fifth CEO in nearly five years, Yahoo has bought up 19 mobile-app and social media companies. Was this to transform from a dial-up era portal to a mobile hub? Was it a talent grab? Or was it to boost Yahoo’s cool quotient? For the moment, Wall Street doesn’t really care, as the stock is up. Eventually, investors will demand real results — and a clear plan.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think Ms. Mayer has done an admirable job shaking things up to reinvigorate the brand. I just wonder about the message she’s sending to her most vital constituencies (e.g., employees, investors, advertisers…) with her over-the-top Vogue layout, sleek new logo
and new home purchase. Clearly, an optics-minded Mayer must recognize that these optics don’t necessarily accrue to the core brand positioning or bottom line – or do they?  Yahoo!’s brand identity remains very much a work-in-progress…Ms. Mayer less so.