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EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES - Branding Tall

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES - Branding Tall

Pencils out! Books closed! It's time for a pop quiz....

1. What colour do you think of when you think of IBM?2. What animal comes to mind when you hear the word cigarette?3. What food do you associate with Aunt Jemima?If you answered blue, a camel and pancakes, congratulations: You've been imprinted. International Business Machines Corp., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Aurora Foods Inc. have burned their brands into your brain, thanks to years of repetitive advertising. ("I'd walk a mile for a Camel.") Branding, for these old-line companies, meant sending out endless visual and textual messages to the consumers of the world, all in the hope of generating a positive aura around their products.

Branding on the Web means something entirely different. Understanding the difference and acting on it will separate the dominant brands in a given category from the also-rans. Offline, branding is about crafting a careful image that potential buyers then passively consume. Online, branding is about an experience. And it's active. Look at the two best-known brands on the Web: Yahoo and Amazon.com.

Yahoo Inc. made its name by providing a friendly, easy-to-use navigation service. It didn't need to spend millions getting you to associate a colour, catch-phrase or character with its service. Yahoo simply civilised the wilds of the Web, and users flocked to it as a result.

Similarly, Amazon.com Inc. offered a gentle introduction to the world of electronic commerce. Put a book in your shopping cart, head for the register and voila! there it is at your door a few days later. The experience was so painless and convenient that users became brand-loyal.

Nick Rothenberg, a managing partner at the Los Angeles offices of Reinvent Communications Inc., says it best: "Branding isn't just about image anymore.

Everything you do online is part of the brand-building experience."That said, here are my six cardinal rules for building a winning brand on the Web.

1. Leverage real-world brand equity.

Web users want to do business with brands they trust. Your site should highlight its relationship to your real-world business and your real-world brand. When United Parcel Service of America Inc. launched its Web site in 1994, it didn't create the "Big Brown Truck" Web site or "ShippingOnline.com." It constructed a presence at www.ups.com that simply transitioned a powerful real-world brand into a new medium.

"What our brand has come to stand for is reliability, security and global reach," says Dale Hayes, the company's vice president for electronic commerce marketing. "We didn't...reposition or reshape the brand on the Net. Our customers want to know that the same integrity they expect from us in the physical world is there in the virtual world."Maximising the value of an established brand on the Web also means being true to that brand. In the early days, when everyone assumed that the Web's most dedicated users were all between the ages of 15 and 29, sites strove to be hip and irreverent. Pandering-and brand mutation-was excusable at the time, but as the Web evolved into a mainstream medium, it became laughable.

"If your brand is hip, then make the Web site hip," advises Chris Enock, creative director at Enock Inc., a Manhattan design and development firm that has done work for such brands as Pepsi, Nasdaq and TWA. "If it's not hip, then the site will go against the grain of what you do. This is 1998, and not everyone on the Web is a skateboarder anymore."2. Offer utility über alles.

Web brands are all about utility.

So what unique functionality do you offer? How does your site make customers' lives easier? UPS delivers value by letting visitors to its site find drop-off locations, calculate shipping costs and track packages en route. Borders.com employs human beings to help online shoppers find the books they're looking for by e-mail ("the author's last name rhymes with rutabaga").

"Building a brand in this medium is all about substance," says Jason Roberts, president and CEO of Sausalito, California-based Panmedia Corp. "People want Web sites to be useful. If you're fulfilling a real need, and you have an honest connection to the audience, then you're bound to do something good."3. Harness digital word-of-mouth.

I'm all for promoting a Web site offline. Autobytel.com Inc. made a giant leap in consumer awareness when it bought its first Super Bowl commercial, and Amazon.com became familiar to book lovers by filling the pages of The New York Times Book Review with prominent ads. But the real miracle of the Web is hive marketing: digital word-of-mouth.

Amar Goel started Chip Shot Golf Corp. in his dorm room at Harvard University in 1995. The brand was new, and his marketing budget for the company, which sells customised golf clubs over the Web, was almost nonexistent. But as an avid golfer, Goel knew that most of his fellow duffers first hear about new retailers and new equipment through word-of-mouth.

So he created a referral program on the site. You order a club from Chip Shot-say, a custom-built Big Bertha look-alike-and you get a discount code.

When you give that discount code to any of your friends, they're entitled to a 5 percent discount. And when your friends buy from the site, you get 10 percent of the revenue-credit or cash-from those transactions.

Today 23 percent of Chip Shot's business comes from repeat customers, and 10 percent comes from referrals. The company's revenue-just US$8,000 a month in January-was up to $60,000 a month when Goel graduated from Harvard in June and topped $100,000 two months later. And the brand is on its way to becoming the Amazon.com of the links.

4. Partner relentlessly.

A lot of old-line brands fail to understand that partners are everything in this medium. You can achieve critical mass much more quickly by joining up with other strong brands. For example, UPS allows third-party sites to download its package-tracking feature, so some big customers like Gateway 2000 Inc., Dell Computer Corp. and Amazon.com have done just that. Chip Shot works with golf-oriented sites like GolfWeb, iGolf and golf.com to build its name recognition among fans of the sport. Alexa Internet, the company that developed Alexa, a new navigation tool that offers background information about the Web sites that you visit and suggests related sites, cut deals with Yahoo, VeriSign Inc., Britannica Inc. and Netscape Communications Corp.

"We're starting to get a lot of momentum from all these arrangements," says Darian Patchin, director of media and distribution at San Francisco-based Alexa. "We launched the service in beta in July last year, and we're already approaching a million and a half downloads. Partnerships were a huge part of getting to this point."In short, never underestimate the impact of sharing content, swapping links, bartering for ad space, entering into co-marketing agreements or partnering in other creative ways.

5. Protect your brand.

On the Web, your brand and your domain name are inextricably linked. Southwest Airlines Co. didn't realise this in 1994 when it registered Iflyswa.com ("I Fly SWA") to identify its online presence. Last year the company finally obtained Southwest.com. It's frustrating for customers when they can't find you easily and frustrating for you when they wind up at the Web site of an unrelated company (see what you get when you go to Delta.com).

Tom Barrett is vice president and general manager of Quincy, Massachusetts-based Thomson & Thomson, which is marketing a new service called Namestake.com that helps clients establish and protect their online identities.

"This is a high-stakes game," Barrett says. His advice: Register domains for every possible permutation of every one of your brands. (The Boston Globe, where I used to work, nailed Boston.com, Bostonglobe.com and Globe.com but ignored Theglobe.com, which was later taken by another company.) If someone else has grabbed a domain you want, consider bartering for it, buying it, suing or waiting until the registration expires to nab it.

6. Listen to the customer.

There's simply no way that a Web brand can be useful and provide a rewarding experience without regularly asking its audience for feedback.

At Borders.com, users of the "preview" site that launched in May have been vocal in telling Scott Wilder, Borders Online Inc. director of Internet services, what they like and don't like. "We're very focused on how we can listen to their concerns and address them in features and functionality," Wilder says. Panmedia's Roberts estimates that users "suggest 90 percent of our tutorial topics nowadays." And at UPS, Hayes regularly enlists a research firm to survey customers: How does his site stack up against competitors like FedEx? What do consumers think about its performance, visual appeal, ease-of-use?All three of these sites show an understanding that brand-building is no longer a one-way street. It's a two-lane highway, with traffic zipping in both directions. Your customers tell you what they want your brand to be, and you listen and react. After all, you're in this game to serve them-right?Have I missed one of your cardinal rules for becoming a killer Web brand? Please clue me in.

(Scott Kirsner is a Boston-based writer and consultant. He can be reached at kirsner@worldnet.att.net.)

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