By Stuart Fuller


It seems that the folks over at Heinz were left with more than red faces recently after they forgot to renew a domain name that was linked to a promotional website accessible from a QR code on thousands of bottles of the global super brand Tomato Ketchup.  An opportunist saw that the domain name had been allowed to expire and snapped it up, redirecting it to an adult website that was too saucy for many consumers.

QR codes are a common way for using a Smartphone to access related product content online.  In this case the code was supposed to direct users to a website where they could design their own label for a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup Hot, as part of a promotion by the company.  Whilst the promotion had a clear end date, it was almost certainly superseded by the use-by and sell-by dates of the product, meaning that consumers would potentially still scan the QR code long after the promotion ended.  It seems the folks in marketing may not have factored this into their thinking when they decided not to renew the domain name.

Domain names that have web traffic and inbound links have an inherent value and there are a number of freely-available tools that allow anybody to assess the value of expiring domain names.  Even if the name didn't feature Heinz's name or the Tomato Ketchup branding someone would be able to see it was a valuable digital asset and so it is no surprise someone snapped it up.  With gaming and porn two of the most valuable types of web properties on the Internet it's really no surprise that someone who knew what they were doing pointed the domain at an adult website.

So how could a brand holder avoid this happening to them? A thorough review of domain names, such as the NetNames Portfolio Optimisation Report would highlight domains that have live content and consequently a value to an organisation prior to any names being deleted.  It's interesting in this case to also note that when the application window for the expansion of the domain name space happened in 2012, Heinz actually applied to run dotHeinz and dotKetchup, but decided to withdraw their applications later in the year.  Had they run the promotion through their dotBrands, this would not have happened as they would have retained complete control over the ownership of any domain names registered or deleted.

The incident also highlights a deeper concern related to the adoption of QR codes.  Few of us would enter a URL into our browsers if we knew the website hosted inappropriate content or malware yet that's exactly what could happen when we scan a QR code as we have no idea where we could end up as we have seen in the example of Heinz.

Whilst the story has an amusing side to it, it is one that is totally avoidable by taking a few basic steps in forming a domain name policy.  The same careful consideration should be taking when deleting a domain name as when registering.  Whilst. The domain may not have any obvious value to a brand anymore, what impact would it have if it was in the hands of a competitor, a protester or in this case someone who could cause reputational damage.  Unless there is evidence that the content is causing damage through intellectual property infringement it may also be incredibly hard to legally recovering it.