The branding world is abuzz today with reactions to AOL’s advanced look at a rebranding campaign, the cornerstone of which is a revamped logo.

AOL said in a press release:

AOL today previewed its new brand identity for its future as an independent company committed to creating the world’s most simple and stimulating content and online experiences.

The new AOL brand identity is a simple, confident logotype, revealed by ever-changing images. It’s one consistent logo with countless ways to reveal. The new brand identity will be fully unveiled on December 10, when AOL common stock begins trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

“Our new identity is uniquely dynamic. Our business is focused on creating world-class experiences for consumers and AOL is centered on creative and talented people – employees, partners, and advertisers. We have a clear strategy that we are passionate about and we plan on standing behind the AOL brand as we take the company into the next decade,” said Tim Armstrong, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AOL.

So I gather the company’s positioning (repositioning?) is that it offers “the world’s most simple and stimulating content and online experiences.”

Herein lies AOL’s problem.  Its positioning is neither clear nor focused nor different from hundreds of other information/entertainment services on the Web.

AOL’s brand image is as indelible as any brand’s can be. It rose to prominence as “the Beginner’s Internet.” AOL was a safe and easy way for novices to get used to using the Web.

Those days are over. Like Polaroid, whose name now stands for an obsolete technology, the AOL brand stands for a need that people no longer feel.  Never mind the Time Warner merger debacle. AOL’s halcyon days were certain to come to an end as the universe of users became adept at roaming the Web without AOL’s training wheels.

It’s clear that AOL understands the power of their brand’s heritage, because they retained the idea of “simple” in their brand messaging. But now the company is clinging to the very brand attribute that’s dragging them down. “Simple” is now a best practice in Web IA and design, and most marquee information/entertainment sites are designed so even a novice user can find his way around.

Take a look at the AOL home page. Is it any simpler than, say, Entertainment Weekly, People, or USAToday? I don’t think so. It might even be more complicated than some. Is the content more “stimulating?” Not that I can tell.

If AOL wants to save its brand, it needs to burn its ships like Cortez on the shores of the New World, forget about making “simple” part of its brand positioning–that’s table stakes now–and focus on offering something really different and believable.

“The world’s most stimulating content and online experiences” is neither.

AOL’s biggest problem is that, like GM, the company is still huge, but it’s no longer in the market position to act like a category leader. They need to think like an entrepreneur, who looks for ways to carve out a unique niche or, better yet, create a new category. If they ever found that opportunity, they should dump the AOL name and its associated baggage–burn their ships–so they can launch unfettered and go about conquering this new territory.

But I suspect they will limp along, like Polaroid, continuing to offer a me-too product and being just profitable enough to keep the lights on.