Our obsession with traffic has been so intense during the past 5 years that it has impeded our ability to understand the dynamics of doing business on the Internet. As thousands of companies focused their efforts on inflating log files, a select few (Google, Apple, Yahoo!, Amazon, etc...) have made investments in building strong brands. Today, these companies are stronger than ever, growing each day as the Internet population booms.
Notice that the list includes only Internet or Technology companies. This illustrates the inherent problem with branding. Too often, small and mid-sized companies shy away from developing brands, thinking it remains the exclusive domain of tech companies companies that have the means, staff, and time to develop clever corporate communications programs. The fact is that all companies should invest their efforts in building strong brands because the interest they pay over time can make a business successful, very successful.
Empires have been created on powerful brands. Take the Virgin Group for example. The Virgin brand name is so powerful that the company can easily grab 15 percent of any market it enters. That is powerful equity.
Make no mistake, brands are as vital in cyberspace as they are in the real world. While the concept of the brand has evolved to include new dimensions, it nonetheless remains one of the facets of e-strategy that offers the most potential for improving a company's performance on the Internet as well as ensuring its long-term success.
In fact, businesses that focus on delivering value to well-defined market segments while aggressively building powerful ebrands will still be around when the fourth generation of internet companies enters the marketplace. With analysts predicting the demise of 98 percent of Internet companies in the near future, such accomplishment will be quite remarkable.
1. What is branding?
Part of the problem with branding is that many professionals have a vague idea or rather a misconception of what a brand is and what it does. Often confusing brand awareness with brand equity, online marketing managers embark on initiatives that return at best a small fraction of their potential value. Case in point: the terrible use of banner advertising. It is clear that banners as they are today represent a poor tool for generating traffic to a site. Yet, they are the perfect vehicle for building brand equity; for educating target markets about what a brand stands for, its values, and positioning; and for creating and reinforcing a brand's unique image and message.
So why do 99 percent of banners still emphasize "click here" over the brand's message which is, in most cases, absent? All we see are logos associated with the same message repeated banner after banner. Clearly a poor way to differentiate a company's offering. Isn't that one of the main objectives of a brand?
A brand distinguishes a company's offerings, transforming its products and services into augmented products and services. Suddenly, the product becomes more than it is (1). The yellow Ralph Lauren polo shirt becomes more than the same yellow polo shirt without the Ralph Lauren logo. Investments in brand equity also benefit companies that resell the products and services of others. For some reason, your friends will be more impressed if you offer them a bottle of Crystal champagne from Neiman Marcus than the same bottle coming from the local wine store. That reason is no accident.
People, consumers and professionals alike, form an image of the brand based on all the messages it sends. Hence, a company's entire communications program defines what a particular brand represents and how it is perceived by the audience. Through clear and constant communications, a brand slowly acquires an identity (2). This means everything a company does online or offline plays an important role in building a strong brand. It includes its logo, advertising style, communications style, web site design, etc...
The important thing to remember is that your brand will acquire an identity whether you plan it or not. Hence, the importance of taking control over your company's branding strategy, after all it is your brand. As you can see brand management is not for technology and Internet companies only.
2. Creating a powerful ebrand
The Internet has clearly transformed the business environment. However, its impact on branding is less clear and less publicized. We hear a lot about ebrands, but what does that really mean? Is it a new marketing concept or simply a new dimension of the traditional brand? Should a marketing manager approach ebranding differently than branding?
At the core, ebranding and branding have essentially the same objectives. The main difference is that ebranding now incorporates a new dimension: doing business in cyberspace. This means, for example, that one has to pay close attention to the words or names used in the brand name itself -- especially when it is used as a URL. If your brand name is too difficult to remember or type, your prospects may find your web site or worse may never come back. Take for instance, Barnes and Noble and its ebrand bn.com. In the real world, it does not really matter if you know how to spell Barnes and Noble because you can remember the location of the store and can easily recognize the company's logo on the store front. New rules apply in cyberspace: recall takes precedence over recognition. To get to the Barnes and Noble web site, recognition won't help you a bit; recall is key. Yet, there is a greater opportunity for error with recall than there is with recognition. Barnes and Noble recognized this fact early on, and reserved a variety of domain names (barnesandnoble.com, barnesnnoble.com, bn.com), finally settling on bn.com which is certainly easy to type and recall.
Other aspects specific to ebranding include dealing with the issues of trust and privacy.With privacy and security rating high on the list of concerns of cybershoppers, companies must clearly indicate, through their ebrands, their position on these issues. This way, all products and services offered under the brand name will inherit its reputation. As new concerns or values emerge in the emarketplace, ebrand managers must reposition their brand to meet their audiences expectations, needs or wants.
Plus, brand managers must also avoid falling victim to spammarketing to prevent damaging their ebrands. Spammarketing or unknowingly using spam techniques to deliver a message on the Internet is more wide-spread than believed. This emphasizes the importance of selecting reliable sources when executing online marketing strategies. A wrong move could land your ebrand and site a spot on the dreaded black list -- the equivalent of a real world boycott of your company's offering. Consequently, ebrand managers are well versed in Netiquette.
Finally, ebranding focuses on building equity in cyberspace using a variety of Internet-based marketing tools. The good news is that low-CPM Internet marketing tools will work as well as high-CPM vehicles. This is particularly important when you consider the fact that a strong brand is the result of repetition.
Remember the goal is to create brand awareness and then make the necessary investment to build brand equity. You do not need to sponsor keywords for that. Identifying the appropriate categories and channels on a search engine and placing branding banners will do the trick. Also worth considering: sponsoring newsletters, sponsoring online communities, or email marketing.
Always favor a communications program that combines several tools over one that focuses on using only one marketing vehicle because your audience will typically encode the information differently if it is delivered in different formats. Different encoding means that the information will be easier to retrieve.
3. e-Branding for today and tomorrow
An astute brand manager will be concerned about changes in consumer and customer behaviors and will reposition his brand accordingly. An astute ebrand manager must also anticipate changes in the cyberspace environment to make sure the ebrand's direction is right on target.
The Internet as we know it is about to change thanks to the advent of wireless devices. How do you build an ebrand that will survive change and allow your company to reap the benefits of this new wave of web surfers? Anticipate and make the right investments today. While I may sit in front on my computer for hours searching for a site that offers excatly what I need, I certainly don't intend to surf page and page of search engine results on a wireless phone. I will probably use the device's preset choices or type the URL of the site that comes to mind.
This leads me to the ultimate goal of ebranding: securing a portion of your target market's mindshare. In other words, your audience must think of your brand first when seeking the product, service, or content your offer. Simple but powerful concept that will make your company a key player in the wireless web environment.
|Footnotes: 1. Jean-Noel Kapferer, Strategic Brand Management : Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity Long Term, p20. 2 Jean-Noel Kapferer, Strategic Brand Management : Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity Long Term, p37.