Do You Really Understand Branding On The Web?

The other night I was shocked out of my made-for-TV-movie-induced stupor by a truly vile commercial for Outpost.com.

Granted, this disgusting advertisement may have been done tongue-in-cheek. However, it struck me as a feeble attempt by the company to establish brand awareness with a magic bullet approach. And fundamentally, it was also a failed attempt.

The gist of the message escapes me. All I remember is that for some unfathomable reason, the president of Outpost shoots real, live, hapless gerbils out of a canon into a wall. He knocked a few gerbils unconscious to demonstrate his “point.”

In a word: Yecch!

I did remember Outpost’s URL, but only because I wanted to be sure I never bought anything from them. I did not remember what they sold or anything else about the company. And this commercial did not appear to be manufactured by some overzealous creative department gone wild. The company president himself was the announcer.

Outpost’s mis-guided attempt at establishing brand recognition illustrates a fact of internet marketing: There is no quick and easy way to establish brand recognition and trust.

In the world of online marketing, perhaps nothing is more misunderstood than the meaning of “branding.” Branding in the pre-internet, offline world required the integration of advertising, customer service, sales promotion, public relations, direct mail, newsletters, frequency discounts, event sponsorship, word-of-mouth and other communications tactics to present a unified message about the company, its products or services.

Online, where seemingly everything can change before you can say “click here,” everyone is looking for shortcuts. No one has time to study the classic principles of marketing, or the history of public relations.

Everything has to happen now, today or preferably yesterday. There apparently is no time to waste in the study of recent history. Well, here is the quick bottom line: The technology is new, but the things that make people buy have not changed. Consumers still want to buy products and services from companies they trust and like and which they believe will be there tomorrow.

Banner ads, even those with flashing graphics and fabulous animation, never establish a brand and they never will. Click-throughs don’t establish branding. Publicity alone will not establish branding. Email alone will not establish brand recognition and acceptance.

Branding is something that happens over time as the result of a consistent effort to communicate a clear message. It begins with a marketable concept as the foundation of a business. That means that the business founders have given a tremendous amount of thought to how they will distinguish their business from the 5 or 5,000 other businesses selling essentially the same products and services.

When there is no bricks and mortar store, no national advertising campaign, and no flamboyant and well-known business leader as the founder, a web site can be awfully hard to promote. I should know because promoting web sites is what I do for a living.

More than once, I have presented a carefully planned design for launching an unknown plan online. I’ve discussed the need for quality, dynamic information, superb customer service, a searchable library of articles by experts on the subject, online events, by-lined articles for other web sites, and so on.

And more than one overwhelmed business owner has pleaded “Why do I have to do all that just to sell my product!?”

Well because those, my friend, are the elements of branding!

On the internet, however, at least one thing HAS changed. In their classic marketing book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout say that only one company can have the top share of the consumer’s mind. That is no longer necessarily true on the internet.

While Barnes & Noble may have been the best-known bookseller on earth and the first book store in many people’s minds, Amazon.com was able to sell the pants off of them by creating a better concept. And the immediacy of the internet has allowed the value of Amazon’s great concept to be spread around the globe in a matter of months.

Online, a better concept, even by a tiny company, has the opportunity to become the biggest and the best. There is no doubt that the internet offers some unique opportunities.

That unique selling proposition needs to be built into the business plan. No meaningful branding will happen without it — no matter how many gerbils the company president slams on national television.

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