How to Avoid the Mistakes of Online Branding

What a struggle. For the last 10 years, interactive agencies have tried to convince advertisers it’s reasonable to do branding online. It’s been a tough road for two big reasons. First, we never really had a good definition of “brand,” let alone consensus on what a brand strategy comprises. Second — let’s face it — we turned to branding as a fallback position when the bubble began to burst: “Well, no one is clicking, sure… but the real value comes from what the consumer does later.” It was a tough sell; clearly we were treading water, looking to protect a dwindling revenue stream.

We’ve turned the proverbial corner in our industry, and we can comfortably service clients and drive value for them. Now, we can talk about branding. But let’s do it right. Let’s start at the beginning, with definitions.

What is a brand? Most of the time, “brand” is defined in pretty fuzzy terms, but we need something more practical and pragmatic:

Brand (n): A set of beliefs about a company held by a consumer that compels an action.

You could swap out a few words there (like “product” for “company” and “shareholder” for “consumer”), but the idea behind the definition should be consistent. The big thing is this set of beliefs is constantly shifting, which means the actions being compelled are constantly shifting.

Next, we need to define “strategy.” Too often, strategy is described as a clever observation or insight (especially at agencies). That’s great, but it’s not enough. Try this:

Strategy (n): A plan to transform a situation from its current state to a desired state.

This definition presupposes a few things. Specifically, before the plan is written you must have a clear (and agreed upon) understanding of the current state, as well as the desired state. If you know these two things, you can craft the plan to move from one to the other.

With these two definitions, actual branding can happen, if for no other reason than the fact that you can describe, in detail, what you plan to do in your branding campaign. Here are a few steps you can follow.

Define the Situation

The biggest mistake in undertaking a brand campaign is assuming the work needs to operate on a global level, raising overall product awareness. With the exception of Super Bowl ads, this is way too lofty a goal. It’s a recipe for failure.

The best way to avoid this trap is to create a much tighter definition of current and desired states. If you define the desired state as “great awareness” or “increased purchase intent,” you don’t have enough to truly develop a strategy. Instead, to look for pockets of opportunity. That means achieving a finer level of understanding about product perception and what, in particular, will help move the needle.

The best way to do this is through consumer research. There’s no real shortcut to this. You either have to talk to consumers directly or at least tune in to their conversations online. Ultimately, this will help you find the specific messages consumers want to hear.

Isolate Pockets of Good Consumers

The next mistake brand builders make is to view their consumer base monolithically. For broadcast media that’s fine, maybe even necessary. But online, we have the fantastic ability to target individual groups. Online branding strategies should be built around targeting very specific groups that will be interested in hearing your message and can have a real effect on your overall success. These groups can be defined by demographics or behavior. Isolate them in some way, so you can specifically measure effectiveness at reaching them and having them take an action or hold a belief.

Your strategy shouldn’t just talk about consumers, but “business travelers,” “teens who visit theme parks,” “cat owners,” and so on.

Prioritize Features and Benefits

The last mistake brand builders make is to shortcut the creative. Online, we have a tendency to see logos slapped on top of all sorts of things in the name of branding. That’s not a real strategy, and a real strategy is necessary. The “plan” part of strategy’s definition means you must determine what about the product will help catalyze a change in attitude or behavior among consumers.

To do this, create a list of all the product’s features. Then, develop a list of benefits for each feature. Are you marketing a new computer with a faster start-up process (feature)? Talk about how it saves the consumer time (benefit).

Choose which benefits will most effectively change the situation in the way you want. Once you have those, talk with the creative team about bringing those benefits to life online.

This isn’t really hard work. It’s a structured process, not drastically different from the one brand managers go through across all media. Online marketers must remember our technology, although cool, is the means, not the end. Once, simply being online said something about a brand. It was forward-thinking and wanted to have a dialogue with consumers. That’s not true anymore. To continue the medium’s evolution, we must show it can work in all aspects of advertising and marketing. To do that, we must do the real work of branding, and not just adopt the vocabulary.

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