LONG BEACH, Calif. - Something odd happened here in mid-December.
Danica Patrick, squeezed into a muscle suit, crashed through a cyclone fence and led a pack of bodybuilders down a downtown street in search of a small-business solution (more on that later).The image is jarring - not just the diminutive Patrick bulked up, but the absence of scantily clad women in a GoDaddy commercial for the Super Bowl.
"When I first saw (the costume), I thought, 'Holy crap!' " Patrick said, eyes widening to emphasize her point. "But I understand this ad is about brand extension, and more about what they do now.
"C'mon, check out my muscles," Patrick implored a reporter, showing off a foam-rubber suit meticulously painted with veins.
The change of pace - OK, radical departure - is part of a corporate makeover. "It's been a transformative year," says Blake Irving, GoDaddy's new CEO. "Our new message is that of the go-getter - valuable, edgy and fun. Two years ago, it was provocative, sexy, crazy, gutsy."
This isn't some 30-second gimmick, but a systemic change to reflect a big shift in how GoDaddy intends to do business. The TV spot underscores GoDaddy's push to make more premium small-business services available to its 12 million customers (it had 11 million a year ago).
In one of its first large-scale partnerships, GoDaddy last week named Microsoft Office 365 as the exclusive e-mail/productivity service for its small-business customers. The company is also enhancing its invoicing and Web-hosting services for business owners.
GoDaddy cut its teeth in registering domain names and offering Web-hosting services before diving into the small-business market. It envisions a steep upside to its new strategy: There are 28 million small businesses in the USA, and 125 million worldwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the 28 million small businesses, 92% have fewer than four employees.
This isn't your father's GoDaddy.
Patrick's 13th Super Bowl ad for the company since 2007 is a departure from the titillation-laced fare she was once a part of. The company's racy ads started in 2005, with a sexy spoof of the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.
In the forthcoming ad on Super Sunday on Feb. 2, Patrick leads a bevy of bodybuilders to a spray-tan shop.
Beneath the biceps and bulk, GoDaddy's newest ad is targeted at small businesses such as RecipeForFitness.com, a nutrition site that sells meal plans to customers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and England.
"They cover all of the technical stuff, and fix it," says Chelle Stafford, who owns the site. As an experienced Web master, she coded the site and had a hand in processing every transaction.
Not anymore, because of GoDaddy's website builder and digital shopping cart. "It takes so much of the back-end work off of me," Stafford says. "I don't have to mess with it."
As GoDaddy moves in a newer direction, it's looking past its beachhead in the U.S., where roughly three-fourths of its customers live. It has major expansion ideas: It plans to roll out its small-business services in more than 30 languages (approximately 60 countries) this year. Last week, it named Microsoft veteran Arne Josefsberg as chief information officer to lead the expansion.
That should have an appreciable impact on the 4,300-person company's annual revenue of more than $1 billion.
GoDaddy's gambit is promising, but will only be successful if it's consistent with the company's marketing plans. The latest Patrick ad comes on the heels of a spot with actor Jean-Claude Van Damme in September that alludes to GoDaddy's new direction, advertising experts say.
"Sex started it, and built awareness," says Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising. "Now, they have to say what they do, as well as change the message internally."
"They're headed in the right direction, but it takes time," Dorfman says.
"If you blow this out, it could go to 50 million (members) and fundamentally change the way small businesses work," says Irving, a former executive at Yahoo and Microsoft.
It's been a heady year for Irving, a drumming enthusiast who took the GoDaddy gig on Jan. 7, 2013. Between animated conversations about drummers such as Carmine Appice and Chad Wackerman, and some industry gossip, the 54-year-old Irving said he was thisclose to taking another CEO job - he won't say with whom - when the recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles came calling. Within two weeks, he joined GoDaddy - his first CEO gig.
What convinced him, among other things, was a nine-hour "super fun" interview with company founder Bob Parsons that included a round of golf near the company's Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters. "It just felt right," recalled Irving, who previously was chief product officer at Yahoo and corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows Live Platform group. "Bob knows all about customer care and has great marketing instincts. I'm a products guy."
Parsons, 63, who is chairman and owns 27% of the privately held company he founded in 1997, still offers feedback on an informal basis, but not strategy.
"GoDaddy has always been incredibly passionate about our small-business customers, and I love how the new marketing approach showcases our support for the little guys," says Parsons, who came out of retirement after founding financial-software services company Parsons Technology to launch GoDaddy in 1997.
"I'm tremendously supportive of the new strategy and direction of the company under Blake's leadership," Parsons said.
The company's new buttoned-down business approach doesn't mean it still can't have fun. Some 5,000 attended the company's Christmas party at University of Phoenix Stadium - home of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals - where Snoop Dogg and Ke$ha were among the entertainers.
"They (GoDaddy) are up to some crazy stuff," Patrick said, pointing to her muscle suit during the ad shoot here. "But it all seems to be part of a good plan."