Basecamp: A Clear and Present Brand

| August 31st, 2009 | , ,

Basecamp™ is again causing a stir in the online project management space by recently announcing they will be moving all of their existing customers from their old site address to a new site address at basecamphq.com. To make matters more controversial, they’ve also announced they’ll be branding the new site address with a small logo.

In defense of this move, they write:

We’ve talked with a lot of folks over the years and discovered that many people who use Basecamp don’t know they are using “Basecamp.” They think they’re using “projectpath” or “clientsection” or “grouphub” because that’s what their account’s domain name is.

This is a very understandable reason for making this move. It happens to us all of the time. Our web-based project management app is named “Intervals,” however, we often have customers refer to it as “Time Task,” “Project Account,” or “My Intervals.” Is this our fault? Well, it certainly isn’t our customers’ fault. It’s just one of those conundrums currently hanging over the online Software as a Service marketplace. One way we’ve tried to decrease customer confusion of our brand is to offer the intervalsonline.com domain as an option when creating an account.

While we are often thinking of new ways to get our name and brand across clearly to our customers, we would never resort to branding the app for paying customers, or forcing them to a new domain name. Not that it’s wrong to do so, but it’s something we’ve promised our customers we would never do from the beginning. There is simply too much value to our customers in having their own project management space to go and mess with a good thing.

And it sounds like some Basecamp customers are feeling the same. Some of them have stepped up the heat in the Customer Forums Important notice regarding your Basecamp web address post. Again, in defense of this move, they say:


We’d like to give you the option to use your own domain, but right now it’s not technically possible since all Basecamp sites are SSL. And since they are secure, each site needs a secure certificate which is a pretty complicated process to manage for each customer.

Intervals does this quite easily using wildcard SSL certificates. You can purchase and install them, one per each domain, and create as many SSL plans on the subdomains as you would like. I’m assuming this is how Basecamp handled SSL plans before, and I’m surprised they are not continuing to do so moving forward. The most complicated part of the process we’ve encountered is remembering to renew the certs for each of the domain names.

Update: As pointed out in the comments, I misread the information about the domains and SSL. Basecamp was referring to top level domains, and not subdomains. In that light, I don’t know who would be crazy enough to try and support SSL for unique domains. However, I still think it’s too big a change for Basecamp to get rid of domains like grouphub.com, etc. For customers who have come to appreciate or rely on the anonymity of the interface, this will be a difficult transition.

The decision to move everyone over to new site addresses sounds like it was done for good reason, but it does not sound like the best solution to the problem. I am surprised that the creative minds at Basecamp, who have been an inspiration to ourselves and many other web-based project management tools on the market, did not think of a more creative solution.

As stated on their site, the driving reason for this change is to make it easier for them to manage the product. This makes a lot of sense and is good reason to rope in new customers moving forward.

A single domain name makes signup simpler for our customers, communication more consistent for us, and infrastructure easier to maintain for everyone’s benefit.

But to require existing customers to make a significant change in the way they’ve been using your product for the last four years? You need a better reason then the one they give.

Perhaps the real reason for this change is the one found reading between the lines of announcements, forum ventings and blog posts. They have a serious branding issue on their hands, and it isn’t just their customers who are confused. Have you seen how many Basecamp knockoffs are on the market today? Without a clear and present brand, Basecamp is likely to continue suffering customer confusion in the marketplace.

In the meanwhile, it reinforces our decision here at Pelago to create Intervals not only as an alternative to Basecamp, but also a more comprehensive project management workflow application, offering more features such as invoicing and advanced reporting. If anyone ever confuses Intervals with Basecamp, we know we’ve done something wrong.

And to the creative minds at Basecamp, we wish you the best of luck with your transition. You are trying to solve one of the great branding mysteries of offering SaaS. We’ll be watching to see how it goes. Maybe we’ll learn a thing or two about clarifying our own brand.

18 Responses to “Basecamp: A Clear and Present Brand”

  1. Rob says:

    I could be wrong, but I believe this statement is not referring to sub-domains: “We’d like to give you the option to use your own domain, but right now it’s not technically possible since all Basecamp sites are SSL. And since they are secure, each site needs a secure certificate which is a pretty complicated process to manage for each customer.” I read it as addressing the issue of people wanting to use their own domains to access Basecamp, not the domains that 37signals owns.

  2. J says:

    For the record, I believe you’re misreading the SSL cert issue.

    37signals uses wildcard certs for subdomains, but each unique domain requires a unique SSL certificate (and a unique IP for complete compatibility with every modern web browser).

    So, for example, if you had 10,000 customers all hosting their own secure domains with you, you’d have to purchase and manage 10,000 unique SSL certificates.

    It’s not that this is impossible, but it’s an entirely different problem than the one you described with SSL wildcard certificates.

  3. John Reeve says:

    Good point. I do believe they are talking about top level domains and not subdomains. Yes, that would be unfeasible. However, they are also doing away with subdomains. For example, everyone on grouphub.com is getting moved to basecamphq.com. That is the recent announcement that is earning them the backlash in the forums.

  4. J says:

    John: Subdomains stay. It’s just the top level domain that changes.

    So acme.grouphub.com becomes acme.basecamphq.com. Only the domain changes. And the old URLs redirect instantly to the new URLs so no one has to make any changes on their side.

  5. John Reeve says:

    Thanks everyone for pointing out the misunderstanding. Meanwhile, i’ve updated the blog post above. Cheers.

  6. Julian says:

    Branding is definitely a key isue for any piece of software trying to make a dent. That’s why we’re bright orange at http://www.proworkflow.com – Here’s a page on our brand rationale: https://www.proworkflow.com/PWF_brand.cfm.

    Basecamp are doing the right thing, but ultimately customers should choose to stay with a solution because of the ROI, not the brand. If it doesn’t deliver ROI, the customer should leave.

    So Basecamp, Intervals and ProWOrkflow (and others) should be all working to a common goal. Not to better each other, but rather to provide great tools and solutions to the customers who need them.

    Julian Sttone – CEO
    http://www.proworkflow.com

    Web Based Project Management Software

  7. zane walter says:

    Comparisons are good and appreciable but I am using Proofhub and its have a good package for work. Branding of any product based on good services and features which provided.

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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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