Attention, please. I wish to dispel the biggest myth in advertising:Branding is not a mystical art practiced exclusively by hipster business people in San Francisco, New York, and London.
A brand is a consumer belief about a company, product, or service that compels action. Marketing and advertising ensure those beliefs continually compel actions that generate profitable behavior. Beliefs can be basic and direct ("always tastes good") or more emotional ("makes me feel special"). Hopefully, the beliefs don't compel actions damaging to a brand. If they do, that needs to be addressed.
Online companies have largely adopted the notion brand is critical. They understand the need to continuously battle for consumer attention. A few years back, online companies got a bad rap for branding campaigns that favored high-ticket, outrageous tactics as a method to generate recall.
Much of this effort was ill-conceived, but the core issue remains: Online, a strong brand is vital. We might argue developing a brand online is more important than developing one off-. Brick-and-mortar companies can get away with mere convenience. One burger chain may be markedly better than another, but it's difficult to access if it's miles away. A bookstore near your office gets the bulk of your business. Online, every bookstore is the same distance away: one click.
Establishing a brand as the one of choice (for reasons above and beyond convenience) is key for online businesses. The first round of Internet branding often focused on convenience. A rash of marketing highlighted a site's ability to let you shop in your underwear (an overused, irrelevant gag if there ever was one). Rapidly, brands realized every online store is equally convenient.
The next big idea was inventory. That faded quickly, too. A consumer really doesn't care if you have zillions of products in stock. She only cares if you have the one she wants, in her size and color. The offline analogue was in the '80s and '90s, when brands sought to convince consumers they focused on quality and customer service. In branding there are table stakes, then there's the stuff that differentiates.
We've seen a few years' worth of branding for online sites and services. A few best practices and trends are emerging. They aren't necessarily hard and fast rules, but they do illustrate some core features of what an online brand can be.
The concept of youth is extraordinarily widespread among online brands. Think about the names and logos of some of the most recognized and valuable consumer brands: Yahoo, Google, eBay. Each uses strong, primary colors to express itself. Two purposefully offset the letters in the logo.
These aren't kids' brands, but they incorporate the best elements of youth: imagination and learning. There's openness, an invitation to experiment and play with each brand. That leads to accessibility. Fulfilling the promise is each has an easy way to begin working with its site, plus a series of more complex tools you can grow into.
People experience online brands inside a browser window, often in the midst of other windows. As this is the primary experience consumers have with these brands (and the fact they are mostly new brands), there's a tendency for them to meld. We see this primarily in the advertorial phenomenon. Offline, consumers have issues with mixing content and advertising. They appear more forgiving of the practice online. Consumers accept ads that occupy very prominent positions on content sites. The strongest evidence is the home page takeover.
After the inventory phase, Internet branding moved into personalization. It was an important shift for branding in general. The best Internet brands stopped offering what the company has to focus on what the consumer wants. This comes in the form of recommendations from an e-commerce site or dynamic editorial on a content site. Every brand wants to build a relationship with its consumers. Online brands can make that relationship a key part of the experience every time.
Readers of this column know I believe spontaneity to be one of the most valuable elements of brand equity. Internet brands can capture this better. Spontaneity emanates from a brand in two ways. The first is simply being up to date. In retail, the latest products must be in stock. For content, news must be posted as soon as it breaks. A spontaneous site or service is up-to-the-second with the spontaneity of the larger world.
The second approach to spontaneity is even more valuable: a site that continually surprise in pleasant ways. Amazon's Gold Box is a brilliant example. It's taken the human need to be surprised and used it as an invitation to browse through the store. Smart, smart, smart.
The above are four elements of online brands, not rules. Branding may not be a black art, but some understand branding concepts better than others. The magic comes in when the elements are blended together to create brand-new, wonderful things.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT