Brand Is Back

A couple of interesting reports and a short news story that many people missed last week really got me thinking about what’s going on with brand in the online world. And while none of this stuff stands out like a neon sign, all of it points me back to one inescapable conclusion: Brand is back!

“Ha!” you’re saying. “People here on ClickZ talk about brand all the time. The ad world’s chock-full o’ ‘branding’ talk. Heck, you couldn’t have swung a dead venture capitalist without hitting five or six ‘branding experts’ at the last conference I went to.”

And I’m not denying any of that. Sure, there are plenty of folks out there talking about the importance of branding, how to do it, and how to pull it off on the web. That’s fine.

The trouble is that many of them think that branding means putting your logo on everything, repeating your company’s name every time you exhale, and doing television ads. Baloney! Those are just a few of the tactical ways to express brand. A brand’s a lot more than a logo.

When you really think of what a brand is, it’s a lot more than your company’s look and feel. It’s really that place where your company’s values, products, and services touch your customers. Traditionally, conventional wisdom has put that intersection in the realm of “communications” and has left it to be shepherded along by those who knew how to negotiate the graphic aspects of where the company touches the customers. But it’s a lot bigger than that.

Everywhere your company touches your customers – the look of the site, the way your customer service people answer the phone, the speed at which packages are delivered, the ease of returns, the navigability of the site, its lack of technical glitches, the value-added services, the user-friendliness… all of these are expressions of the brand. Just as the greeter at the door of Wal-Mart is as much a part of the brand as the logo, so must your site’s offerings and the way your company is expressed in the whole slew of communications strive to communicate brand values.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case online. A lot of the dot-coms out there spend ungodly amounts of money on advertising but then screw up when it comes to dealing with customers actually buying, using, and returning stuff. You don’t have to look much further than the precipitous downfall of Value America to see how a company can fall from the heights quickly when all the pieces don’t work together. Everywhere, sites compete on price but lose it on the stuff that really matters.

And that brings me to the studies that piqued my interest on brand for this week’s column. A report by ActivMedia Research, which focused on how to build online customer loyalty, discovered one fact that I find stunning: While many consumers give lip-service to price when describing what drives them to a particular site, it’s the unique features that make shopping easier and more satisfying – such as customer support, value, and overall satisfaction – that keep them coming back.

In fact, this study even goes so far as to exclaim that “To compete on price alone is to leave money lying on the table, suppress company profits, and drag down future brand equity!” It’s the ease of use and navigation that are differentiators. In effect, it’s the accurate communication of brand values through the intangibles that makes the difference.

Which made me remember a report I saw back in December from Active Research that stated that 25 percent of adults in the U.S. couldn’t recall even one of those “dot-com” ads that choked the airways around Christmas. In fact, the unaided recall rate of consumers for dot-coms over the holidays was about one percent… a pretty humongous waste of lots of media money.

Why did this happen? Again, branding. Sure those commercials were loads of fun. Sure, they got you chuckling. But did they communicate anything about the brand they were advertising? In many cases, no.

Worse yet, most of the time all anybody remembered was the “dot-com” part of the name, not the actual name of the brand itself. In effect, the frequency of the ads had a wonderful effect of building the Internet as a brand but did a terrible job of building the brands intended.

This brings me to the small news story that makes me hopeful that people are starting to come down from that place where everything having to do with the web looks different and plays by different rules than the rest of the world. Last week, with little fanfare, InfoSpace dropped the “dot-com” from its official name. Why? As one analyst simply noted, “[Their] brand is InfoSpace. The ‘dot-com’ is just a moniker.”

No DUH! (And you can quote me on that.)

Dropping that “dot-com” seems like a small thing, but it’s symbolically huge. Not only does getting the “dot-com” out of the name move the emphasis to the actual company brand, but it also recognizes a larger issue (to be discussed at a later date in a shorter column): That while we like to talk about “e-business,” the Net is rapidly becoming a fact of life and key to the survival of all business.

Just as the basic principles of “brand” apply across the board, the basic principles of business do, too. Brand is back… but it never really left, it just got buried under a lot of hype.

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